‘This Is It:’ Willis, Hawkins Working to Finish in Style
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The cheers are loud in Rupp Arena.
They’re just a bit louder when a Kentucky-born Wildcat is the one drawing them.
“It’s definitely different because I feel like every time I went in the game fans just gave me a standing ovation or something like that,” Richmond, Kentucky, native Dominique Hawkins said. “Every time I do anything good – if I just made one shot the fans go nuts.”
Outside Rupp, the crowds always follow UK basketball players.
They follow the Bluegrass-bred ones just a little more closely.
“When we go out in public as a team, like we’re all together, obviously people are going to be clapping for you or they’ll say something like, ‘Good luck this season,’ ” Mt. Washington, Kentucky, native Derek Willis said, “but I feel like for me and Dominique, we always get pulled aside or something. There’s always that one person that’s going to pull us aside and is like, ‘Hey, as a Kentucky native to native, we really appreciate what you’re doing, what you do for the team and how hard you play.’ ”
As unique as the experience of playing basketball at Kentucky might be, it’s just a little different for the select few players who grow up in the state and play for its flagship university. Hawkins and Willis are thankful they get to experience it. In fact, it drives them.
“For me, that’s why—I play for the fans because when they’re out there cheering you on it makes me play hard,” Willis said.
Willis and Hawkins are entering their senior season, though. Their days experiencing…all of this, for lack of a better term, are numbered.
“This is it,” Willis said. “Just try to make the most of it now.”
Neither Willis nor Hawkins came to UK thinking they’d coast through four years, soaking up the adulation and playing occasional mop-up minutes. Rather, they planned to contribute. Both have, though taking divergent paths.
Hawkins didn’t wait long to make an impact, surprising many when John Calipari summoned him from the bench in an early-season Champions Classic game against Michigan State during his freshman season. He would then go on to play a crucial role in UK’s run to the national championship game that year, taking on difficult defensive assignments against the likes of Louisville’s Russ Smith and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas.
Willis, meanwhile, had to bide his time.
Through two seasons, Willis played just 114 minutes in a Kentucky uniform. That changed quickly with UK strapped for frontcourt depth in 2015-16, but Willis was still only a complementary player early in Southeastern Conference play, and by January had topped 20 minutes in only the season opener.
It was then that Willis broke out.
He had a double-double in a loss at Auburn and – save for a three-game absence due to injury – Willis didn’t look back. He emerged as an indispensable third scoring option alongside Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, stretching the floor with his deadeye outside shooting. Thanks in large part to Willis, UK found its rhythm and swept the SEC regular-season and tournament titles.
“I didn’t play those first two years and I just didn’t know where I stood,” Willis said. “Once I got there and kind of got into the flow of the game, your instincts kind of take over. It all just kind of comes to you.”
Willis finally got his opportunity because he put in the work. He acknowledged his deficits, admitted to himself he wasn’t doing everything he could to address them and did his best to change that.
It took a unique sense of self-awareness to do what he did. He’s showing it again in the lead-up to his senior year.
“Just be a more sound defender,” Willis said. “On the court, be more vocal. I think that was the issue with me last year. It was like, yeah, this kid can really help us out offensively, but when we come down on the defensive end, he’s giving up baskets. So that’s just where I’ve taken initiative to get stronger and be just a better, more confident defender.”
Defense, meanwhile, has always been Hawkins’ calling card. It’s what got him on the floor as a freshman and what positioned him to play extended minutes again as a junior after he took a backseat on a historically deep UK team as a sophomore. Unfortunately, he was prevented by doing so consistently.
“He’s been unlucky with some injuries when he had his chance and all of a sudden he gets hurt,” John Calipari said.
First it was a preseason hand injury that kept him out around a month. Then it was an ankle injury suffered just days after the best game of his career against Louisville. He returned after missing another four weeks, but never rediscovered the form he showed against UK’s archrival.
Fortunately for Hawkins, he has one more (hopefully injury-free) season ahead of him.
“I feel like if I stay healthy this season I’m going to have a good season,” Hawkins said. “As long as I’m able to keep on having confidence in myself I know that I’ll have a good season. I’ll be able to knock down shots and guard my tail off.”
The other role both Hawkins and Willis will play is of the leadership variety. With another talented crop of freshmen on campus, it’s on the two seniors to show them the ropes.
“I kind of got hit with that right in the start of the summer,” Willis said. “People were asking me questions, everything about UK. I kind of got thrown into that already.”
It’s only natural for newcomers to go to veterans for guidance, but it caught Hawkins off guard at first.
“It’s really insane to think about that,” Hawkins said. “You have guys coming in and looking up to you and asking you questions about things. I really didn’t realize that this was going to be happening when I was going to be a senior. Now that I notice that this is happening I feel like I need to be able to be there for the guys, be able to lead them to the right situation, be able to tell them what to do and show them what to do on the court.”
It's a responsibility Willis and Hawkins take seriously. Kentucky is in their blood, after all.
“It means a lot more to me now that I’m a senior,” Willis said. “It’s the end of the road.”