By LARRY VAUGHT
Derek Willis thought he would be at Rupp Arena playing in the state tournament last week. Instead, he had on his Kentucky blue jacket when he accepted his award as the Sixth Region Player of the Year because his Bullitt East team lost to Pleasure Ridge Park in the regional.
““I am very proud of this award. I am just glad I got it,” said Willis, a 6-9 forward who signed with Kentucky in November. “It is disappointing to not have made state. Throughout the season, that was my goal over any goal to get back here to Rupp and hopefully have a chance to win it again, but we fell in regionals. It was just unfortunate for us. I’m just looking forward to Kentucky right now and getting my body in shape and just all that.”
Willis offered his thoughts on a variety of other subjects during the state tourney interview.
Question: Do you think Madison Central guard Dominique Hawkins is a good enough player to play at Kentucky?
Willis: “Oh yeah, he’s a Kentucky kid. He’s tough, real tough, real athletic, strong. If we added him to the recruiting class, it would be a good pickup.”
Question: Do you plan to wear the Kentucky jacket here today?
Willis: “Oh, yeah, I had to come out in it. It was just good to talk to the fans, talk to the little kids and all that. It has been good today for the brief amount hours I’ve been here.”
Question: What lies ahead in the next few months for you?
Willis: “Just working out. I picked up a little job to try and get as much money as I can to save up for college. That is really about it. Just go to the gym every day.”
Question: Where are you working?
Willis: “My girlfriend hooked me up with a job at McAllister’s on Bardstown Road 9 (in Fern Creek). So I’ll be serving sandwiches to people. Be sure to check them out.”
Question: Will you be playing for your coach, Troy Barr, in the Derby Classic in Louisville next month?
Willis: “I will be at the Derby Festival at Freedom Hall. I will be playing in the Kentucky-Indiana all-stars, of course, and Kentucky-Ohio all-star game. I am looking forward to those.”
Question: What do you think watching Kentucky finish the season?
Willis: “I didn’t know how their season would be. I knew this would be a down year for college basketball. It was just up to them. I don’t really want to cover them. They could still click the next day. It could be anything. I hope they finish the season strong.”
Question: Did you talk to UK coach John Calipari or assistant Orlando Antigua at the state tourney?
Willis: “I said hi to him and gave him a handshake. That was about it really. Him and Coach O.”
Question: Have you been in contact with the other signees, the other commitments?
Willis: “Marcus Lee I to talk to via Twitter. I got to talk to Dakari (Johnson) during College GameDay during the Missouri game. I don’t really keep in contact with the (Harrison) twins or James Young. That is the only two I talk to right now.”
Question: What do you think about Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle’s decisions?
Willis: “When I put my predictions out there for people coming, they generally do happen. As far as Wiggins goes, I’ve tried to figure him out. I’ve read everything about him and looked him up. I don’t know. I know UK is one of his top two choices, I would say. As far as Julius Randle goes, in my opinion and this is all based on what I’ve found, what I’ve read, I think he will come. As far as Aaron Gordon goes, he’s on the West Coast. I don’t think he’ll come, too far away. That’s just my insight.”
Question: How much do you read recruiting stuff?
Willis: “I don’t read it a lot anymore. I used to read it a lot during the season because people would say, ‘Who’s this?’ and I’d look them up. But as far as recruiting goes, I’ll just leave it to the fans and stuff. I just try to deal with myself. But I think Randle is probably a lock. That’s my opinion. He could do whatever, but I think he’ll come. Wiggins is a toss-up for me. I can’t figure it out.”
Question: Why do you think Randle is a lock?
Willis: “I think he’s a lock, but I wouldn’t write that down. Anything could happen, but I think he’s a lock.”
Question: Are you ready for the huge expectations of next season?
Willis: “Yeah, I’m trying ot get ready for it right now. My body is not in the best shape. I’m trying to get stronger and put some weight on. I’m just looking forward to it. More excitement than anything.”
Question: What’s your weight now?
Willis: “About 200 or 195. I’d like to be at 220. I think would be good. If more, great, but 220 is what I’m shooting for right now.”
Question: Does it motivate you that when people talk about the recruiting class and name names, they kind of just mention your name at the end?
Willis: “I know during the summer I fell off obviously, but then again, we go to Missouri (for a holiday tournament) and we play top 10 player (five-star Arkansas signee) Bobby Portis, and I have a good game and I have a good tournament. Everybody had a good tournament for my team, not just me. And you look at my stat line against a top-10 player. He is a good player; I’m not knocking him. They are all good players out there. I just fell off, and they got more hype than me. … I’m more worried about pleasing coach Cal and the staff and the fans more than anything. I am just worried about that right now.”
Question: Is it nice to come in under the radar without huge expectations weighing you down?
Willis: “That’s how I wanted it to be. When I first got on the recruiting scene, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a top-30 player.’ I was grateful to be up there and be thought highly of, but when I fell off, I still had to keep working hard and do the things that top players do.”