August 22, 2012

Derek Willis anxiously awaiting his time at Kentucky

With the constant hoopla surrounding Kentucky coach John Calipari and his recruitment of some the elite prospects in the 2013 class it is easy to forget that the Wildcats already have one player who has given the program a verbal pledge to join the team after his graduation next June.

That player is the top rising senior in the state of Kentucky, four-star forward Derek Willis, out of Louisville (Kent.) Bullitt East HS.

Since choosing the Wildcats last winter over his hometown Louisville Cardinals, as well as a Purdue program which he was formerly committed to, Willis has kept a relatively low profile. In fact, with the recruiting process in the past for Willis his family made the decision that he would not even play AAU in the live evaluation periods.

While that might have made it even easier to forget that Willis is a critical piece to the future of the Wildcats, the 6-foot-9 combo forward doesn't think that lack of exposure in front of scouting services means much.

"Coach (John) Calipari and his staff already know what I can do, that's why I'm committed to them," Willis told Cats Illustrated, "Instead of choosing to play AAU I spent my time working out mostly on my own to get better. If I fell in the rankings because of that then that's fine with me, I really don't care about my ranking. I feel good about the improvements that I've made to my game."

After talking with the Kentucky staff at the conclusion of his high school season Willis paid close attention to what his future coaches thought would be the best way to go about improving his overall game. The unanimous response that he got from Calipari's staff was that he needed to focus a lot of his effort on adding bulk to his slender 6-foot-9 frame.

"I talk to Coach Calipari on occasion, but I spend a lot more time talking to Coach (John) Robic," Willis said, "We talk about once a week on the phone right now.

"They want me to work on my strength and I've made a lot of improvements in that area. This whole summer I basically spend just trying to add weight and muscle. I spent more time this summer in the gym then I have ever have before, and I think that it really paid off."

Ranked no. 95 in the latest 2013 Rivals150, Willis understands that being the top ranked player in his class in the state of Kentucky; as well as being a verbal commitment to UK; means that he will have a bulls-eye on his back every game. Even though he can relax some now that he the recruiting process behind him, Willis has high expectations for himself on the court this season.

"Being committed early is both a blessing and a curse," said Willis, "It takes a lot of pressure off my senior season and allows me to enjoy my final year more. But, on the flip side, I know that I'm a marked man every game in-state so I've got to come out and play my best on every possession.

"My goal this year is to win Mr. Basketball in Kentucky. I think I can do it, it would be a great honor."

During his senior season Willis will be focused primarily on two things. First, trying to capture a state title that has been elusive to his Bullitt East team over the last couple of seasons. Second, Willis wants to spend as much time as possible familiarizing himself with everything UK, in hopes of easing his transition to college basketball next season.

"We've been to state the last two years but haven't quite been able to win it," Willis said, "Our expectation this year isn't to get back to state. Our expectation is to bring home the trophy.

"As for getting ready to go to UK, I'm going to be at every single home game this season. It starts with Big Blue Madness in October; but I don't plan on missing a game all year."

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