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Derek Willis not focused on rankings as he plays with more highly touted Wildcats

One might expect a Kentucky native—who grew up less than 100 miles west of Lexington—who signs to play basketball with UK would have grown up an avid Wildcat fan.


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That is not the case for UK freshman forward Derek Willis.


“I was a Louisville fan, but we rooted for anyone in Kentucky, anyone who represented the Commonwealth,” he said in a one-on-one interview with KyForward in September.


Willis was the first commitment in what ended up being UK’s record-setting 2013 recruiting class. He announced his commitment in January 2012.


Willis chose UK over offers from Louisville, Indiana, Purdue and Xavier. He was briefly committed to Purdue as a high school sophomore. Willis was the first Kentucky high school player to commit to UK in the John Calipari Era.


Derek Willis | Photo by Jon Hale

Derek Willis | Photo by Jon Hale

“I was like, ‘I better get on this while I can, because this is going to fall in whenever,'” he said. “I wasn’t expecting this class to be this large and this crazy talented, but yeah, I do take some pride in being No. 1.”


As Willis watched Calipari rake in commitments from McDonald’s All-Americans, including two who played his position, he did not waver from his commitment.


“I don’t know what kind of person I would be if I shied away from a challenge,” he said. “That wouldn’t define me as a man.”


Calipari was frank in assessing Willis’ chance at playing time in a roundtable interview with local reporters in September, noting he is going against “physical men” in freshmen Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson, and sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.


“Right now he’s stronger and in better shape than he was, but he’s got a ways to go with that,” Calipari said. “Especially because he’s not playing a position where you can physically be not up to snuff.”


Willis appears to be entering his collegiate careers with eyes wide open.


Growing up in the state, he is well aware of the intensity of the UK fan base. He can easily recall going to UK-UofL football games and seeing fans get in fights. Willis experienced the positive and negative sides of both fan bases during the recruiting process.


He is getting plenty of practice dealing with criticism, too, after seeing his recruiting ratings drops as a senior and becoming somewhat of an afterthought in the class.


To those detractors, he has a simple response.


“People still bring it up,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’m in the best college in the nation. Rankings can tell you that if you want to go look them up.’ ”




In the weeks leading up to the 2013 UK men’s basketball media day, KyForward is previewing the season with a series of stories about the Cats resulting from interviews with players and head coach John Calipari from September. As they publish, you can see all of the stories in the series here.

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