Hometown Heroes: A return to platoons pays off
By Kenny Colston
PHOTOS BY WALTER CORNETT
When it comes to Kentucky basketball, there’s a special place reserved for the homegrown talent.
You’ve heard your grandpa tell the stories of the kids who grew up in the hollers (Wah Wah Jones) or the farms of the western part of the state (Hey, Rex Chapman and Cliff Hagan) who personified greatness as a Wildcat.
What about Derek Anderson and Rajon Rondo, the Louisville ballers, or the most recent Kentucky-bred Wildcat, Darius Miller, of Northern Kentucky?
Mention any of these guys and Cat fans’ eyes will light up a little more than for say, Ron Mercer, Pat Riley or other out-of-state superstars.
Even for those guys who didn’t make it to the NBA, like Jon Hood, Jarrod Polson or Cameron Mills, life is a little bit easier for staying home and wearing the blue and white.
Which brings us to the love affair with Derek Willis, of Bullitt County and Dominique Hawkins, of Richmond, two local guys largely overshadowed by the buffet of NBA talent on this year’s team.
But, quite frankly, they shouldn’t be. Especially not Hawkins.
A few weeks ago, The Cats’ hope for a perfect season (we’re not mentioning numbers here) was seriously challenged with overtime wins against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, two teams currently not forecasted to make the NCAA tournament.
On the whole, the reasoning for those close calls are two-fold, former coach and current analyst (and Lexington native) Darrin Horn says.
First, Horn says give credit to those two teams, especially Ole Miss “for doing everything you have to do to beat (Kentucky).” Secondly, the Cats seemed to focus less on defense, their calling card this season, and more on offense.
In the two games after, the beatings re-commenced against Missouri and Alabama. Horn’s reasoning: back to focusing on defense.
Some other reasons for the back-to-back blowout wins: A return to platoons in the wake of the Alex Poythress injury, which means more time for Hawkins and Willis, the hometown heroes.
In the Missouri victory, Hawkins started (… let that sink in… he started the game) and was praised for his defensive intensity. He even scored six points and to the rabid fan, it was clear Hawkins showed he belonged. Coach Calipari even said as much.
When an undisclosed injury sidelined Hawkins for the next game, Willis stepped up in the second platoon. While his play was less than stellar, it was an important moment for the sophomore forward.
It’s clear the Cats have two keys to their historic run so far: platoons and defense. And they aren’t mutually exclusive. Kentucky needs the platoons to keep up the defensive intensity. That means Kentucky needs Hawkins (and Willis) to step it up.
Who would imagine two lesser-known players surrounded by NBA-caliber talent could be the key to the best season in basketball history?
A former SEC coach himself, Horn isn’t ready to heap superlatives on the Cats’ homegrown talent.
“I think it has been a bonus,” Horn said of Hawkins and Willis’ recent play in the platoons. “Too many in the media, myself included now, worry about what a platoon and does it work or not work.
“I think the purpose of the platoon is (Cal’s) getting quality play from 10 guys.”
And that’s where Hawkins and Willis come in. No one, not even the craziest fan, would expect Willis to take a big 3-pointer away from Aaron Harrison or Devin Booker. No one is thinking Hawkins will outplay Tyler Ulis or Andrew Harrison.
But in order to platoon, five in, five out, you need ten guys. Alex Poythress’ injury leaves a vacancy that needs to be filled. For Hawkins, a defensive intensity and allowing the Harrison twins to be off-the-ball defenders seem to be key for the first platoons’ defense.
If Hawkins can’t play, Willis’ ability to hit mid-to-long-range shots eases the pain when Trey Lyles is promoted to the first platoon from the second.
To put it clearly, UK doesn’t need 20 points from either individual, but in order to blow teams out night in and night out, it does need both players.
And if the Cats get an insane night from either Hawkins or Willis? Well watch out.
“Could they have a night like Marcus Lee had against Michigan (in the NCAA tournament)?” Horn said. “I think that’s possible. But what we’ve seen is likely what we’ll get.”
But that’s OK.
Kentucky fans don’t need for all of their homegrown players to be all-stars. They just need them to contribute, to perform to their strengths, to give it their all.
If Kentucky wants an undefeated season and a national championship, it needs Dominique Hawkins to defend like crazy and it needs Derek Willis to hit shots and rebound when called upon. And it needs at least one of them in every game going forward.
And if they do perform, and if Kentucky hoists the national title trophy at the end of the year, it’ll make things all that much better.
This article appears on page 4 of the February 2015 issue of Ace.
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