With the game in the balance and less than one minute remaining in overtime, Darral Willis took it upon himself to launch a wrong-footed, contested, 8-foot fade away with 10 seconds still on the shot clock.
It’s the kind of shot that drives Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall crazy when it misses, but Willis has remained on the floor in his two seasons with the Shockers because it’s the kind of shot he can make. Sure enough, on Thursday Willis’ shot splashed through the net and No. 11 WSU survived for a 75-71 overtime victory at Central Florida.
“That’s a bad shot to us, but a big shot to him,” WSU senior Rashard Kelly said. “We need a player like that when we need a bucket. I don’t think a lot of people in the country would take that kind of shot in that moment. But who gets the clutch bucket? Darral does.”
In a class of six seniors that will be celebrated following Sunday’s 11 a.m. clash with No. 10 Cincinnati, Willishas carved out a role with Shaquille Morris, Zach Brown, Kelly, Rauno Nurger, and Conner Frankamp as the supremely confident one.
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Whether it’s taking — and making — the game’s biggest shot or asking a woman for her phone number off the court, Willis carries himself with the self-confidence that makes you think he never fails at anything.
“You’ve got to be like that to have that swag,” Kelly said. “It’s okay to have swag. You’ve got to let Darral Willis be who Darral Willis is and you’ve just got to love him for it.”
“I guess you could call it confident,” Marshall said. “I have some other thoughts that I could probably come up with that I’m not going to share that give him the ability to make those plays. He is very confident.”
How did someone who didn’t even play competitive basketball growing up become someone who oozes confidence on the floor?
“I think I was just born with it,” Willis said. “I grew up playing against old heads (in pick-up games), so I ain’t scared of nobody but my father.”
Wichita State is currently ranked fifth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency, the highest its been in Marshall’s 11 seasons. There are times when the Shockers make scoring seem effortless, and they rank third in the country in assists per game.
But in the pursuit of finding that perfect shot, WSU’s offense can sometimes stall. It needs a player who isn’t afraid of the moment and can create his own shot. Enter Willis.
“Look at (the UCF game),” Willis said. “If I wasn’t confident, I probably would have missed that shot or I wouldn’t have even took it.”
Willis has never been scared to shoot, earning the moniker “Machine Gun Willis” from Marshall for his rapid-fire shooting.
Willis takes a shot on 26.7 percent of possessions when he’s on the floor, the second-highest rate on the team behind Shaquille Morris. He averages 10.7 points in 18.7 minutes. He leads WSU with five double-doubles this season.
“I really like ‘Machine Gun Willis’ because it’s catchy,” Willis said. “I’m not trying to score every time I’m out there, but that’s just what I’m good at. I don’t have to go out there and score 20 every night.”
His comes despite every team’s scouting report telling its defenders to prevent Willis, a left-handed player, from going to his left.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Willis has even improved his success rate near the rim. After scoring on 56 percent of his shots near the rim last season, Willis is scoring on 60 percent this season. He’s also cut out long two-pointers and replaced them with three-pointers, making 14 of 41 (34 percent) beyond the arc.
“I’m just an elite lefty, I guess,” Willis said.
“He’s one of those dudes that can get to his spot, regardless of how the defense is playing him,” WSU’s Landry Shamet said. “He goes more to his right now, but he’s still going to step through and finish with his left.”
Teammates still rib him for how often he shoots and how little he passes, although they admit he’s done a better job this season.
“He does pass the ball more than he did the first day he walked through those doors,” Morris joked. “We all know what he wants to do. Score, score, score.”
And Marshall makes it clear Willis is a work-in-progress on the defensive end.
“He admitted he had never heard anybody utter the word ‘defense’ prior to coming here,” Marshall said.
But Willis has evolved.
His defending has improved. He’s added the three-point shot to his arsenal. He’s sucking up rebounds at a higher rate this season, as his 25.0 percent defensive rebound rate is by far the highest on the team and ranks No. 43 in the country.
And his teammates love him.
“That’s my dude,” Brown said. “He’s brought a lot of positive energy here and that’s something we can dig.”
“That’s one of my favorite teammates, for sure,” Shamet said. “He’s just a unique guy. You’ve just got to know Darral.”
There is a part of Willis that wishes he could start and play more (and yes, shoot more), but he says coming to Wichita State has “definitely been worth it.”
He’s satisfied with winning and he knows he could be the X-Factor for the Shockers in March. After all, few teams in the country can bring a 6-9 player off the bench who has the ability to post a double-double.
“It doesn’t matter who we go up against,” Morris said, “Darral Willis is a guy who can play with anybody.”