BENTON - Bullitt East senior Derek Willis hoped to show that his game had improved during the Marshall County Hoop Fest last weekend. Instead, he could only sit and watch his team beat Hopkinsville because he was serving the final game of a two-game suspension after being ejected for arguing with an official in Bullitt East’s season-opening game.
The 6-8 Willis, the first player to commit to UK’s 2013 recruiting class, did visit with twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison of Texas, two other UK signees, and both said they were glad to get to see him.
“He’s disappointed he couldn’t play, but we just wanted to make sure we at least got to talk to him even if it was just for a few minutes,” Andrew Harrison said. “We both really like him and so does our father.”
Willis talked about his season, his ejection, his future teammates and more during a break at the Marshall Hoop Fest.
Question: How hard was it to be at the Marshall County Hoop Fest with so many fans, media members and college coaches watching and not being able to play?
Willis: “I just cheered my team on and tried to learn from the bench. I just lost my cool. I was frustrated and shouldn’t have acted like that. I was just bad. It was embarrassing and I need to apologize for that. I need to quit being immature about that and just play through that. It is just something that I am still working on. It will be better after this.”
Question: How hard is it to be only 17 and always in the spotlight as a Kentucky signee and Mr. Basketball candidate?
Willis: “People don’t realize how much pressure just any recruit has when you go on play. It’s a lot to deal with.”
Question: Have you fully recovered from your preseason ankle injury?
Willis: “I am pretty much 100 percent. I am fine.”
Question: Will there be big changes in your play this year?
Willis: “My sophomore year I was kind of timid and shied away from contact. Now I have a killer instinct, more aggressive. Just playing a lot harder.”
Question: Was it disappointing not to have chance to show the national recruiting analysts at the Marshall County Hoop Fest who dropped your projections over the summer that you were better than they thought?
Willis: “I don’t like making excuses. I was just disappointed that they felt I was not a top-100 player. I feel like I am. Hopefully they can see that. If my ranking goes up, good. If not, I am still going to play hard. I try to stay away from (internet) message boards. I know people will say see positive, some negative. It is mainly motivation. Quentin Snider of Ballard, a Louisville commit, he always retweets people’s negative things on his timeline as motivation for himself. So I use stuff as motivation.”
Question: How did coach Troy Barr handle your ejection and suspension?
Willis: “I had some tough personal stuff going on, too, that kind of affected my game. Him and all the seniors sat down and I am not a real outgoing guy that likes to talk about what is going on with me but they made me talk and made me get it out and that really helped.”
Question: Do you think your personality is more outgoing that you like to admit based on the way you handle yourself with the media now?
Willis: “When I started getting interviewed, I was real nervous. I would like cut out words and sound timid. Now I have got used to it and meeting people.”
Question: How does it feel to have a teammate like Rusty Troutman who is also a legitimate Mr. Basketball contender along with you?
Willis: “Rusty should be one. If he wins it, I will be happy. If I win it, I will be happy. It’s a win-win for me. If it came down to it, I would want Rusty to win it. He deserves it. I don’t mean to be cocky about it, but I get the attention already because I am going to Kentucky. He has been there (at Bullitt East) longer than I have and deserves it. I feel like has even pushed himself harder than me at times. I would like to see him win it.”
Question: How often do you talk to coach John Calipari?
Willis: “I talk to coach Cal not as much as (assistant) coach (Orlando) Antigua. I talk to coach Antigua about every other week. I just check in with coach Cal every once in a while.”
Question: What is there about Antigua that makes him such a good recruiter?
Willis: “He is just a good guy. He keeps it real with you. The whole Kentucky staff does, which is what I really liked about them. He is just a real person and just a good overall guy. I think he saw my talent. Even when my rankings dropped, he told me he did not recruit me because my ranking was higher. He recruited me because I could play ball and he stuck with me.”
Question: Do you watch Kentucky play a lot now?
Willis: “Whenever they are on ESPN, I check them out. When they are not, I try to go to somebody else’s house to watch. They are a very talented group. I think once they start clicking and toughing it out and playing through the bumps, they will be fine. I think they will jump back up and have a good season.”
Question: What do you think next year will be like in terms of your class adjusting to college basketball?
Willis: “I think it will be different with our class. People will gell together quicker. Even on the visit I took, it seemed like people were kind of cool with each other. Everybody is like kind of the same personality. I would not say anyone is cocky. We are all humble and just all want to play and win. Me and the twins, James Young and Marcus Lee all got along great on our visit and were all cool with each other. Marcus was not committed at the time but when he left I felt we would add another recruit.”
Question: What do you think of twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, two UK signees who played at Marshall County on Friday and Saturday?
Willis: “They are just genuinely good people. I was surprised because some high profile recruits have egos and sometimes they don’t. They are real humble, real down to earth. They are real talented and I wish the best for them.”
Question: What did you do at Big Blue Madness to make such a big impression on their father?
Willis: “I was just being myself. I don’t have an ego. I am about the team. I chose Kentucky because I wanted to win and that’s where the best players go. I talked to him and I hope he knows that I am humble.”
Question: Do you try to watch and learn things from players like the Harrison, Andrew Wiggins, Cliff Alexander and others when you are at an event like the Marshall County Hoop Fest?
Willis: “I supported my team and had a good time with my team, but you have to learn. I watched Wiggins. I watch everybody’s highlight video. I learn new things not just from other recruits, but from NBA players. I watch Larry Bird’s old videos. Just anybody.”
Question: What do you think when you watch Wiggins’ highlights considering he’s not only a UK recruiting target, but also the nation’s No. 1 recruit?
Willis: “He’s just a freak, and I mean that in a good way. He’s just a freak athlete. He has a lot of big things coming towards him and I am sure he realizes that. He is the best player in my opinion that I have seen in my whole life.”
Question: Do you think Kentucky will add Wiggins to your recruiting class?
Willis: “I would say we will. I would say we would get him before Julius Randle if Julius Randle even comes. But either one of them, you can’t go wrong. Either would be great.”