Over his first three seasons as a UK basketball player, Dominique Hawkins says he rarely talked to his fellow Wildcats.
The former Madison Central star was the final addition to Kentucky’s ultra-hyped recruiting class of 2013, the one that had six McDonald’s All-Americans.
Hawkins wasn’t acquainted with any of those players before he came to college, and — already a self-described “shy” kid by nature — was a bit overwhelmed by what he was walking into.
“I didn’t know anybody,” Hawkins said, the smile that’s seemingly always on his face getting a little bigger as he spoke. “Only Derek. And Derek don’t talk much either.”
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Hawkins burst into laughter at the mention of Willis, the only other player in that 2013 class who wasn’t a five-star recruit. Hawkins and Willis were both Kentuckians and knew each other from AAU ball. They became roommates once they got to UK. They bonded. Outside of team activities, they largely kept to themselves.
That’s changed this season.
“I didn’t really talk to my other teammates as much as I did this year,” Hawkins said. “I’m more vocal off the court. I didn’t usually talk to anybody, really, off the court. But to these guys — I’ll just talk about anything with them.”
Hawkins said this bunch is the “funnest” group he’s been around as a Wildcat.
The fun started early, as soon as the freshman class got to campus.
Hawkins, speaking Saturday from his fourth NCAA Tournament, said many of UK’s newcomers in the recent past have come in quiet, just like he did when he was fresh out of high school.
“This group came in not shy at all,” Hawkins said, singling out De’Aaron Fox as the Wildcat who never shuts up. “I’m not a talkative person, but they turned me into one. I feel like I’m talking to them 24/7 when I’m around them. We’re always goofing around with each other.
“Until it’s game time. That’s when we get serious.”
This, of course, is Hawkins’ final trip to the Big Dance. He’s played on two Final Four teams — one that made it to the national championship game, another that was 38-0 going into the final weekend of the season — and he entered this tournament playing his best basketball as a Wildcat.
Hawkins was named to the SEC’s all-tournament team last week. He’s played at least 20 minutes in each of the Wildcats’ four postseason games so far. And, as he has for much of his career, he’s done all the “little things” that have helped drive UK to victories during that stretch.
Not coincidentally, he’s also talking more on the court. In practice and in games. Sometimes that talk goes in John Calipari’s direction.
“I will talk back if I have to,” Hawkins said. “If I feel like I did something that he thought was wrong but I thought was right, I will talk back about that.”
Hawkins “talking back” to Calipari? That would have been unthinkable four years ago.
The UK senior described it as part of the “growing experience” that all college kids go through during their time on campus.
Willis, still the closest Cat to Hawkins, has seen that growth first-hand.
He’s said multiple times in the past few weeks — as their college careers come to a close — that he and Hawkins share similar personalities. That’s part of the reason they’ve become so close during their time in Lexington.
“I think as the years have gone on, we’ve both come along and been a little bit more outgoing as we’ve grown,” Willis said. “We’ve both grown up a lot.”
Kentucky vs. Wichita State
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional round-of-32 game
When: About 2:40 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 30-5, Wichita State 31-4
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 78-76 on March 23, 2014, at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.