“Can you imagine who they played against for four years in practice?” Calipari asked.
Hawkins, the former Madison Central star, and former Bullitt East standout Willis have practiced against 11 ex-Cats who opened the 2016-17 season on NBA rosters.
The chance to wear the magic word “Kentucky” across their chests involved a tradeoff for Hawkins and Willis.
A prototypical “stretch four” as a 6-foot-9 forward with a deft three-point touch, Willis not only could have been a three-year starter at many other power-five conference schools. He likely could have been a star at some.
Freakishly athletic, a dogged defender and the possessor of more offensive game than he’s shown at UK, Hawkins, too, could have been a three-year starter and, likely, a 1,000-points scorer at many Division I programs.
Instead, through three years at Kentucky, Willis has played 710 minutes and scored 288 points. Hawkins has logged 695 minutes and has 115 points. Tyler Ulis, last season’s star Wildcats guard, played 1,287 minutes and scored 606 points last year alone.
Troy Barr, who coached Willis in high school, says the Bullitt East coaching staff had long discussions with the forward at the time he chose UK over Purdue, Indiana and Louisville, to make sure Willis understood what he would face at UK.
“Derek’s had his frustrations,” Barr said. “I haven’t talked to Dominique, but I’m sure he has, too. Any kids as talented as those two are going to get frustrated when they aren’t playing.”
Hawkins, who earned his UK scholarship offer while leading Madison Central to the 2013 Sweet Sixteen title, says he has thought about how his career might be different had he chosen another school.
“I think about it, but I didn’t want that,” he says. “When I came in here, I wanted to be able to win championships. Whatever role Coach Cal is going to give me, that’s what I’m going to stick with.”
The two Kentucky seniors have each had signature moments.
Midway through his junior season, Willis used old-fashioned production to wrest away a starting spot. Given minutes, he produced two double-doubles plus a 25-point game. Willis also hit a stone-cold three-pointer with 1:01 left in overtime that put UK ahead to stay in its SEC Tournament finals win over Texas A&M.
“I’ve told Derek since high school, guys who rebound are guys who play,” Barr said. “Last year, I think he took that to heart.”
As a true freshman in 2013-14, Hawkins became Kentucky’s backcourt defensive stopper as the Wildcats, a No. 8 seed, made a run to the NCAA Tournament finals. “I felt like I was dreaming the whole time,” he says.
Last year as a junior, Hawkins hit three three-pointers and scored 13 points — including UK’s last five — to help the Wildcats survive archrival Louisville, 75-73. However, an ankle injury denied him a chance to build on his breakout.
Now, as seniors, the two Kentucky products have one final chance to be part of an NCAA title team — and to carve out meaningful roles on another stacked roster.
Willis says he has added 17 pounds of muscle in a bid to improve his defense. “I noticed when I added all that weight, I wasn’t getting pushed around as much down low,” Willis said. “I felt better able to push back on people.”
Healthy after an injury-plagued junior year, Hawkins is feeling good about 2016-17, too.
Not long ago, Allen Feldhaus Jr., who coached Hawkins at Madison Central, texted the UK guard to ask how things were going in practice.
“You have to understand, with Dominique, he never says anything about how he’s doing,” says Feldhaus Jr. “(This time), he wrote back ‘I think I’ll be the first guard off the bench if not start.’ That told me he’s feeling really good about how he’s playing.”
A Kentucky necessity
The University of Kentucky has never won a men’s basketball NCAA championship without at least one player from the commonwealth among the team’s top six scorers. Below, a list of the native Kentuckians who played primary roles for UK national title teams:
Player (Hometown), Scoring average, Rank on team
Ralph Beard (Louisville), 12.5 ppg, 1st (tie)
Wah Wah Jones (Harlan), 9.3 ppg, 3rd
Kenny Rollins (Wickliffe), 6.6, 5th
Ralph Beard (Louisville), 10.8 ppg, 2nd
Wah Wah Jones (Harlan), 8.6 ppg, 3rd
Bobby Watson (Owensboro), 10.4 ppg, 2nd (tie)
Frank Ramsey (Madisonville), 10.1 ppg, 4th
Cliff Hagan (Owensboro), 9.2 ppg, 5th
Vernon Hatton (Lexington), 17.1 ppg, 1st
Johnny Cox (Hazard), 14.9 ppg, 2nd
John Crigler (Hebron), 13.6 ppg, 3rd
Adrian Smith (Farmington), 12.4 ppg, 4th
Jack Givens (Lexington), 18.1 ppg, 1st
James Lee (Lexington), 11.3 ppg, 4th
Derek Anderson (Louisville), 9.4 ppg, 4th
Anthony Epps (Lebanon), 6.7 ppg, 7th
Scott Padgett (Louisville), 11.5 ppg, 3rd
Darius Miller (Maysville), 9.9 ppg, 6th