With Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis as honorees, Kentucky’s Senior Night on Tuesday will be something of an anomaly. Each player is a testament to the old-school values of diligence, patience and perseverance. And, of course, UK has become synonymous with college careers measured in months, one-and-done players and fast-tracking to professional fame and fortune.
Kentucky’s Senior Night is a dying ember whose flickering light is obscured by the garish NBA sun.
In this sense, Hawkins, Mulder and Willis have been exceptional Kentucky players. They’ve combined to make 29 starts in a cumulative 10 Kentucky seasons. Yet, we’re still waiting for the first grousing about playing time, and, truth be told, each has wanted to play more.
“He’s like a horse biting at the bit in the starting gate wanting to get in,” Randy Mulder said of his son. “But he understands.”
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This ability to understand and gracefully carry on makes Allen Feldhaus Jr., proud of Hawkins. When Feldhaus coached him for Madison Central High School, Hawkins was the main man, the Kentucky Mr. Basketball who led his team to a state championship.
When asked to compare that Hawkins with the role-playing substitute at UK, Feldhaus chuckled and said, “Well, he never stood in the corner for us.”
Hawkins stands in the corner for UK — along with serving as a defensive stopper and occasional ball handler — with an upbeat determination to make the most of his assignment.
“He’s going to take whatever role Coach wants him to take, and that’s what makes me most proud of him,” Feldhaus said. “In my opinion, he’s the ultimate team player.”
The seniors knew that playing for Kentucky would be challenging. Mulder, who originally committed to Wichita State, heard skepticism about switching to UK.
“I go, they’re the best team,” Randy Mulder said. “You get to play for the best team with the best players, arguably for the best coach.”
As Troy Barr recalled, Kentucky’s recruiting pitch for Willis differed from the typical wooing.
“All the other schools were telling him how much playing time he was going to get as a freshman,” said Barr, who coached Willis at Bullitt East High, “and telling him when he’d probably start.
“Kentucky never told him that. They just told him they wanted him and he’d have to earn everything he got. For a kid to choose that over guaranteed playing time, I think shows the kind of character he has. He wanted to be challenged. I’m really proud of him.”
Willis, who committed to Purdue as a high school sophomore, has heard fans question his love of basketball. Barr scoffed at this notion.
“If he didn’t love the game, I don’t think he would have gone there,” Barr said.
What Barr finds difficult to accept is how differently fans view Willis this season as opposed to last season. In 2015-16, Willis emerged as a difference maker as a three-point shooter. His defense needed to improve. His numbers were similar this season going into Saturday’s game against Florida. The same is true of his strengths and weaknesses. Yet he’s now perceived as a weak link.
“He seemed the hottest thing for Kentucky fans to talk about last year in a positive way,” Barr said. “The thing I don’t understand this year is he’s the same player he was last year. I don’t understand the turn. I mean, he’s gone from beloved last year to maligned this year.
“I think it’s confusing for him. It would be for any kid.”
Confusing, perhaps, but not demoralizing.
“I’m proud of Derek,” Barr said. “I’m proud of him for going there and fighting a tough battle.”
Randy Mulder has no regrets. “He could have gone to a lesser school and played 30 minutes-plus and scored 25 points a game,” he said of his son. “But the exposure you get at Kentucky, the environment, the beautiful people, it’s been a great experience.”
Feldhaus echoed the sentiment.
“I think he’d do it all over again,” he said of Hawkins. “I don’t think he’d trade it for anything. I think he enjoyed the ride.”
After Kentucky won at 13th-place Missouri on Tuesday, John Calipari saluted Kim Anderson for getting his players to continue competing.
“That’s coaching,” Calipari said. “They haven’t let go of the rope here.”
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said much the same thing earlier Tuesday evening after his team beat 14th-place LSU. He saluted LSU Coach Johnny Jones.
“Johnny is doing a good job keeping this team together,” Pearl said.
Addition by subtraction?
The Sacramento Kings were widely criticized for all but giving away ex-Cat DeMarcus Cousins in last week’s trade to the New Orleans Pelicans. But in a series of tweets, the Kings’ play-by-play announcer, Grant Napear, suggested the trade was an example of addition by subtraction.
“The Sacramento Kings just became a team again!” he tweeted. “It’s time to move into the future! It’s time to start winning! This gives them the best chance.”
Later, Napear tweeted, “And here’s maybe the most important thing: Most of Cousins’ teammates the last seven years hated playing with him! That is a fact!”
To Jamal Murray. He turned 20 on Thursday. . . . To Tom Heitz. He turned 56 on Thursday. . . . To Joey Holland. He turned 62 on Saturday. . . . To Billy Packer. The former CBS basketball analyst turned 77 on Saturday. . . . To former UK sports information director Chris Cameron. He turned 57 on Saturday. . . . To former Florida center Joakim Noah. He turned 32 on Saturday. . . . To Chuck Aleksinas. He turns 58 on Sunday (today). . . . To Marquis Teague. He turns 24 on Tuesday. . . . To Tayshaun Prince. He turns 37 on Tuesday.
Vanderbilt at No. 11 Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)