Mark Story

Mark Story: The one thing Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins absolutely need John Calipari to know

Dominique Hawkins, left, and Derek Willis
Dominique Hawkins, left, and Derek Willis

Here's what Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis need to do. They need to get a piece of paper and write down one particular factoid from Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball history.

Then they need to slip that paper underneath John Calipari's office door.

The fact that the duo should share? The University of Kentucky has never had a team win an NCAA championship without a player from the commonwealth among its top six scorers.

That has been true of all eight Wildcats NCAA title teams, from 1948 (Ralph Beard, Wah Wah Jones et al) through 2012 (Darius Miller).

Madison Central product Hawkins and Bullitt East alumnus Willis — the sole recruited, in-state scholarship players on the 2014-15 UK roster — would seem to have a vested interest in that word moving up the Kentucky chain of command.

"I'll tell Derek to let Coach Cal know that," Hawkins joked.

History aside, it will be fascinating this coming season to see if Hawkins and Willis can carve out meaningful roles on a stacked Kentucky roster that boasts nine McDonald's All-Americans plus a 10th player — junior center Willie Cauley-Stein — who could be an NBA lottery pick.

Even if Calipari follows through on his pre-season talk about using a two-platoon system to take advantage of the vast talent at his disposal, it seems far from certain that Hawkins and Willis can earn serious clock.

A year ago as a UK freshman, Hawkins created a niche as Kentucky's back-court defensive energizer. A compact 6-foot, 190-pound guard, Hawkins played in 33 games and made valuable contributions in the NCAA Tournament by hounding Louisville's Russ Smith and Michigan's Nik Stauskas.

Hawkins, a hero of Madison Central's 2013 state title drive, never found his offensive game, however. He went from January 8th until making a layup in UK's Final Four win over Wisconsin without a field goal.

Willis, a skilled 6-9 sophomore forward with outside shooting ability, played only 39 minutes in his freshman season. Yet there are those who think he has the potential to — maybe — play in the NBA.

Marcus Lee spent most of last season on the UK bench only to make a stellar contribution (10 points, eight rebounds, two blocked shots in 15 minutes) to Kentucky's NCAA round of eight victory over Michigan. Afterwards, in a joyous UK locker room, Wildcats forward Alex Poythress said "Derek could do something like that, too."

At UK's Media Day last week, Calipari said both Willis and Hawkins have made substantial improvements in their games from a season ago.

Last year, Hawkins shot so poorly (9-of-31; 2-of-16 on three-pointers), teams ignored him on the perimeter.

"They weren't guarding him, and he knew it," Calipari said. "Now, if you leave him open, he makes shots."

Willis has added some 20 pounds of muscle to his frame and is shooting with greater confidence, Calipari said.

"They're playing three on three, and I think he's with (point guard) Andrew (Harrison), and Andrew keeps creating the three for him," Calipari said. "They've got a big guy, and if you help in a pick– and– roll and iso(lation), he's throwing a skip pass to that kid and Derek's nailing it."

As he mulls platoon rotations, Calipari says he is looking for ways to involve the two Kentucky homebreds.

"They have gotten way better," the UK coach said. "I think, again, as we put this thing together, they also deserve to be in some sort of rotation. So how do you do it? We're still trying to figure all that stuff out."

Given the potential crunch for playing time this winter, I wondered if either Hawkins or Willis had given thought to redshirting in 2014-15?

After a long pause, Hawkins said "I don't think I would ever want to redshirt. I always want to be able to get on the court ... You never know what will happen. My number may be called."

Willis seemed even less enamored with the prospect of sitting out a year. "No, God no," he said. "My plan has always been to do my four years of college and go from there. I'm not going to redshirt. If I really want to play, I feel like I need to dedicate myself even more."

Well, that, or make sure the UK brain trust realizes that history says a Kentucky NCAA title team must have a home-grown player getting enough shots to be among the Cats' top six scorers.

Playing along, a smiling Willis said "I could be that guy."

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