CRAWFORD | Beyond Senior Night, Willis, Hawkins hope to add to Kentucky hoops' home-state lore
Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins stuck it out at Kentucky while battling a long line of blue-chip players, and find themselves in key roles as their Senior Night against Vanderbilt approaches.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — There is a tendency for those of us who are Kentucky natives, born with what we feel is a God-given right to good basketball and, most years, a manageable path to the Elite Eight (at least), to imbue those in-state players who go to our two major basketball powerhouses with special abilities.
A Kentucky kid playing for the University of Kentucky, we suppose, will sprint a little harder, jump a little higher, want it a little more than other players.
A Louisville kid at the hometown university will hit the floor a little quicker after loose balls, accept losing a little less, demand victory a little more.
That, of course, is pure sentimentalism. I don’t care who he is, no in-state player is going to go from end to end as quickly as De’Aaron Fox. None is going to show more passion on the court than Russ Smith.
And yet, this nagging truth remains: Until Kentucky won its national championship in 2012, no Wildcats team had made the Final Four without a Kentuckian in the starting lineup. And Darius Miller was such a key contributor on that 2012 title team that I don’t count it. In 2014 and 2015, the Wildcats reached the Final Four without a Kentuckian playing a major role. They still hasn’t won a title without one.
(Louisville, similarly, didn’t make a Final Four without a Louisville native in the starting lineup until its 2012 run to the Final Four, and won a title without a Louisville player in a major role in 2013).
And the Wildcats probably won’t win a title this year without two seniors from the Bluegrass state being significant contributors in the postseason.
Derek Willis, a 6-9 forward from Mt. Washington, and Dominique Hawkins, a 6-foot point guard from Richmond, will play their final game in Rupp Arena tonight at 9 against Vanderbilt, along with transfer senior Mychal Mulder.
Willis and Hawkins could’ve played a lot more minutes somewhere else. You could argue that perhaps they should’ve played a few more minutes this season at Kentucky.
But you can’t argue that they haven’t made the most of their minutes.
Here’s the truth: Talent matters more than hometown. Always has. Wah Wah Jones and Jack Givens and Ralph Beard and all the others would’ve been great no matter where they played, or where they were from.
But there is a class of player that has risen above his expectations at Kentucky, guys who instilled a certain amount of heart and determination and toughness. That part of it is no myth. Anthony Epps. Scott Padgett. Dicky Beal. Make your own list. You can see a lot of them hanging from the Rupp Arena rafters, including a team full of them. (And why didn’t Rick Pitino play Richie Farmer more?) They are guys who, somehow, made themselves as good as the program needed them to be for it to stay successful.
Playing at Kentucky, you might’ve heard John Calipari say one time, or a million times, is not for everyone. It can be difficult. Bumps in the road become mountains. Every loss seems to require a special meeting of the General Assembly for the purposes of discussion.
If you’re not from here, it might be easy to get discouraged. It might be easy to forget from time to time what the program means to its fans. It might be easy to look at the life-and-death way people take all of this and blow it off.
The value of guys like Willis and Hawkins is that they don’t blow it off. They embrace it. More than that, they embody it.
"You see their growth, not only on the basketball court, as people,” Calipari said. “You see the opportunities they are now getting. You think about all the players they had to go against and you shake your head and say, ‘How’d they survive?’"
You think Derek Willis wasn’t tempted to move along and find another place to play, somewhere that his abilities could be utilized more than the career 14 minutes per game he’s played?
“I think patience has really been a big thing, because I’m not the most patient person at times,” Willis said. “I want things to happen right at the moment and I can’t really picture what’s going to happen down the road. A big part of that is really my dad staying on me about keep working, stay in there and stay tough through things. It’s paid off now.”
Everybody knows about Willis’ off-the-court issue during the offseason. Because in Kentucky, everybody knows everything about these guys, and it was an embarrassing time for him. His bumps in the road haven’t been insignificant. But he has smoothed them out on the court this season.
Here’s something you might not know about Willis: He leads Kentucky in points per possession (PPP), at 1.103. He’s used 7.2 percent of the time in the Kentucky offense, but ranks in the top five percent of offensive players in the nation in PPP, one percentage point ahead of Wooden Award candidate Malik Monk (1.099 PPP).
Willis shoots 50 percent from the field, but when you consider his three-point shooting, he is shooting an effective field goal percentage of 61.2 percent. He is, statistically, the team’s second-best spot-up shooter behind Monk, and he is the nation’s No. 7 scorer of cuts (16 possessions, 29 points, 86.7 effective field goal percentage).
Hawkins, a former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, might’ve been the next Epps, if called upon to quarterback this Kentucky team on a more regular basis. He showed that last week against No. 12 Florida, playing 37 minutes with four assists and only one turnover against a team that leads the SEC in steals.
Hawkins has a knack for coming off the bench and giving the team whatever it needs. He’s not a lock-down defender, statistically, and he doesn’t shoot a great percentage from three overall, he just finds a way to make big defensive plays at the right time, or to make a key three or two (or, in the case of a game against Louisville last season, four).
“The way he’s been playing now, just fight, battle,” Calipari said. “And he forgets stuff and he’ll go, ‘Oh.’ But what are you going to say to a guy that’s diving all over the floor, taking charges, sticking his nose in, coming up with balls he shouldn’t come up with, making layups and runners and not afraid to play?”
Think about where Kentucky was four games ago. The Wildcats had lost three out of four, then stalled in tougher-than-expected wins over LSU at home and Alabama on the road.
Over the past four games, in part because of an injury to Fox, both players have averaged more than 25 minutes per game.
Hawkins barely came off the floor in one of Kentucky’s biggest games of the season, its victory last Saturday over Florida. Willis scored 16 points and made four three-pointers in a win over Tennessee. He tied his career-high with 12 rebounds, and Kentucky needed every one of them, in a close win at Georgia. He had nine more rebounds in the win over Florida.
“What I can tell you about those two, and I said it this morning in a meeting with them, they’ve never played better in their careers than they’re playing right now,” Calipari said.
Hawkins and Willis have been roommates for four years. They know there will be emotions on Senior Night.
They also know that they’re going to be called upon as the games get bigger and the stakes get higher. And that’s fine with them.
“That’s why you come here,” Hawkins said. “That’s what we’ve worked for.”
No, you don’t run faster or jump higher when you’re a Kentucky kid and you pull on that jersey. But Kentucky kids do keep proving, there is some magic in what they do for the Wildcats, all the same. Maybe there’s something to it. In the storied history of Kentucky basketball, the Wildcats have never won a championship without one.
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