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By LARRY VAUGHT
Bullit East’s Derek Willis — the first commitment in what has turned out to be Kentucky’s historic recruiting class — will be playing in the Kentucky Derby Classic tonight in Louisville.
Once again, he’s being overshadowed by one of UK’s newest signees, Madison Central’s Dominique Hawkins after Hawkins led his team to a state title, was named Mr. Basketball and accepted a scholarship offer from UK all in a two-week period.
“This is all-star game and games can be weird. There will not be much structure to the game,” said Bullitt East coach Troy Barr, one of the game’s coaches. “The game is supposed to be about having fun and there will be some great athletes out there.
“I know there are some people that Derek will not be able to prove himself to until he steps on the floor at Kentucky. Those people, honestly, he and I could care less bout. I know what he’s capable of doing and obviously the coaches at UK know what he is capable of. We all know Kentucky fans w ill show up and I hope both Derek and Dominique get great receptions from the fans. They are both fantastic players and young men.”
Willis was in the spotlight for over two years. He originally committed to Purdue, changed his mind and then was heavily courted by both UK and Louisville. His parents are Louisville fans and his school is closer to Louisville than Kentucky. But he wanted to play for UK coach John Calipari. Little did he know that Calipari would later add six McDonald’s All-Americans — Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, James Young and Andrew Harrison.
“When I first committed to UK, I enjoyed being in the spotlight. But it got old,” Willis said. “People still do recognize me, but I am not the center of attention now with these other guys coming in. Other players are ranked higher and have more hype. That’s fine. I am enjoying being who I am. I am looking forward to showcasing my skills in this game. I have not really proved what I can do to a lot of people. I just hope to have fun, do what I can and show people how versatile I am.”
Willis says he has “not played forever” since his team lost in the regional tournament and did not make the state tourney. He also turned down a chance to play in last week’s Ohio-Kentucky game because he wanted to attend prom. He’s not even sure if he will play in the Kentucky-Indiana series because he’ll already be enrolled in summer school at Kentucky.
“This could be my last high school type of game,” Willis said. “I’ve been in the gym after taking a week off when the season ended. At Kentucky, I will be able to work out a lot and it will be like NBA pickup games every day with the talent we have.”
He says it should help him tonight to have Barr coaching and Bullitt East teammate Rusty Troutman, a Bellarmine signee, on his team. He’s also glad to be spending time with Hawkins, someone he said was just an “acquaintance” before this week’s all-star game.
“We knew each other and had played against each other, but we had never hung out before,” Willis said. “When I first heard Kentucky was on Dominque, I thought, ‘You can’t pass that up.’ We are Kentucky kids and we know Kentucky basketball rules the whole nation in my opinion. It beats out everything. I knew he would come to Kentucky when he got the chance.”
“I hope a lot of fans come out. Dominique is super athletic and super good. He can do so many things. I have not seen many people do what he can do. It’s really mind blowing. This will give people a chance to make opinions on us and see what we can do. There is some pressure on me. I want to do good. I am tired hearing about how I am not ranked and cannot play. I am tried of hearing that. I just want to go out and do what I can do. I am sure it is the same with Dominique.”