On Calipari's Kentucky, Hawkins and Willis Are the Rare Senior Wildcats

Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins are friends, teammates, and a rarity in college basketball: senior scholarship players for the University of Kentucky.

Dec 2 2016, 3:36pm

Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Derek Willis was warming up before a middle-school AAU game in Kentucky several years ago when he glanced over to scout out the opposing team. He couldn't believe what he saw. There, at the other end of the court, a small guard Willis had never heard of was hammering down dunk after athletic, acrobatic, showing-off dunk.

"I was like, What is going on?" Willis told VICE Sports. "I was kind of dumbfounded."

Willis would soon be very familiar with the player, Dominique Hawkins. They faced off several more times, including twice in their senior year in high school. By then, Hawkins and Willis were the best two players in the state. Today, they are friends, teammates, and a rarity in college basketball: senior scholarship players for the University of Kentucky.

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Since coach John Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009, the Wildcats have had constant roster turnover, by design. During that time, 18 Kentucky freshmen have declared for the NBA draft after only one year in school and been selected in the first round. It's a testament to Calipari's recruiting prowess and the talent he brings to the program each year. While some have criticized the coach as the face of college basketball's "one-and-done problem," Calipari sees this as part of his job. "I'm not doing this to please everybody," he told USA Today's Nancy Armour last year. "I'm doing this to please these young people and their families. That's my mission. ... What we do for these kids changes their whole lives and direction, and that's how I look at this."

Among Calipari's first five recruiting classes, Hawkins, Willis, Jon Hood (Class of 2014), and Alex Poythress (Class of 2016) are the only scholarship players to complete all four of their college seasons at Kentucky.

Calipari and Hawkins in 2015. Photo by Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Hawkins and Willis were part of the Wildcats' star-studded recruiting class in 2013 that included five of ESPN's top nine high school players, all of whom declared for the NBA draft after their freshman or sophomore season. Since they arrived on campus, 11 of their teammates have been selected in the NBA draft. Ten of those players are currently in the league. Every year sees another wave of top-level recruits enter the school, and while some classmates have left in search of more playing time—like Marcus Lee, a McDonald's All-American who transferred to Cal in June—Hawkins and Willis said they never considered doing the same.

"That's never been an option for me," Hawkins told VICE Sports. "I always knew that [Calipari] was gonna get the five-star recruits, that I would just have to perform in practice and prove that I could play as good as they could."

Willis added, "There's always rumors every year. Even now if you ask, they'll be like, 'Oh, I heard this summer you were gonna go transfer somewhere.' I'm like, 'No. You didn't hear it from me.' That's never been a thought ever in my head."

Although they're close now, and often mentioned together in the press, it was never a foregone conclusion that Willis and Hawkins would be college teammates. During the spring of his sophomore year, in 2011, Willis committed to Purdue University, the first school to offer him a scholarship. But that summer, after playing well in tournaments and becoming a top-40 national recruit, he received interest from several major colleges, including Louisville and Kentucky. So the six-foot-nine forward decided to consider his options.

"When he de-committed from Purdue, I would've bet a lot of money that he was gonna end up at U of L," said Troy Barr, Willis's coach at Bullitt East High School.

Willis was a top-40 national recruit before joining Calipari's Wildcats. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Willis had grown up near Louisville and rooted for the Cardinals as a kid, so he shocked many in his community when he chose Kentucky in January 2012. He was the first player in his class to commit to the Wildcats.

"UK right now under Calipari is a really, really special place in college basketball. They're doing things that no program has ever done," Barr said. "I think Derek just wanted to be a part of that."

Hawkins did, too, but the 6-foot point guard never thought he would get the opportunity. At Madison Central High School, Hawkins was the first eighth-grader to play on the varsity high school team. For the next four years, he was the team's leading scorer and among the state's best players. Still, heading into his senior year, Hawkins had scholarship offers from only a few small programs such as Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky. The Wildcats didn't show an interest in Hawkins until late in his senior season.

Calipari and then-UK assistant Orlando Antigua attended a couple of Hawkins's games during the state high school tournament at Rupp Arena in Lexington. It was the first time they had seen him play in person. Soon after Hawkins led Madison Central to its first state title and won Kentucky's Mr. Basketball award, Calipari invited him to a Wildcats practice. Afterward, with Hawkins and Madison Central coach Allen Feldhaus Jr. sitting in his office, Calipari offered Hawkins a scholarship.

"I just remember when we walked out, he had a big old grin on his face," Feldhaus Jr. said.

Hawkins, who grew up 25 miles from Lexington, didn't take long to accept the scholarship, even though the Wildcats already had two of the nation's best guards, twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, in the same class.

"It was pretty clear that I was going there once [Calipari] offered," Hawkins said. "I'm always ready for competition. Going there, I knew that I was going to get better. I told him that I'll play my role whatever position he puts me in."

"I'm always ready for competition," Hawkins said. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Neither Hawkins nor Willis have become stars at Kentucky, but they've had their moments. As a freshman, Hawkins served as Kentucky's defensive stopper off the bench in the NCAA tournament and helped guard Louisville's Russ Smith and Michigan's Nik Stauskas. He also scored a career-high 13 points, including the final five points, in last year's 75-73 victory over Louisville. And last month, with starting guard Isaiah Briscoe hurt, Hawkins played 32 minutes and had a career-high nine assists in a victory over UT-Martin.

Willis, meanwhile, barely played as freshman and sophomore before finally getting an opportunity last season, when he averaged 7.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game and shot 44.2 percent on three-pointers. This past summer, Willis gained 17 pounds in order to become stronger and hold his own against physical players, although he's lost ten of those in the past few weeks. He also suffered a thumb injury last month, but has managed to start in four of Kentucky's seven games so far this season.

"We just take it how it is," Willis said. "We've been patient and accepted whatever role we need to take."

Hawkins and Willis each should have a chance to play overseas or even tryout for NBA teams. During Kentucky's pro day in October, Hawkins was first on the team with a 44 ½ inch vertical leap and 16 repetitions on the 185-pound bench press, according to DraftExpress. The website wrote that Hawkins "remains one of the most freakish athletes in all of college basketball." Willis, with his size and shooting ability, could play professionally for a long time, as well.

As freshmen and sophomores, Hawkins and Willis were members of teams that made the Final Four, including the 2014-15 squad that started 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin. The Wildcats only advanced to the second round in last season's NCAA tournament, but they have regrouped and reloaded with freshmen guards Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox and freshmen forwards Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel. They are undefeated and ranked first in the Associated Press and USA Today polls.

For Hawkins and Willis, adjusting to new teammates is nothing new. They could have left and played more at other schools. Instead, they stuck it out with their home state college. Now they're seeking what's eluded them so far: a NCAA tournament championship.

"This year, I think we'll get back to the tournament, have a good showing, and win the title," Willis said. "We've got the team to do it."

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