LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis have enjoyed a four-year courtside view of Kentucky's turnstile of talented players, in addition to all those challenging practices against future NBA draft picks.
Those experiences had to pay off for the home-grown duo, though the result is something rare for the No. 9 Wildcats: Talented players usually don't stick around for four years at Kentucky.
One year, yes. Two years, maybe. Three years, not often. Four? Hardly ever.
''We need them to play well and that's what they're doing right now,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday of his seniors, including transfer Mychal Mulder. ''It takes (the load) off those freshmen who are sometimes in and out. ... If you have a senior who gets it and can step in and take the load off you for a while, it's always good.''
It was a challenge for Hawkins and Willis to earn playing time. During their four years at Kentucky, 13 teammates have left early for the NBA draft. They also had to deal with the constant overhaul of the roster - they have had 34 teammates during their Wildcat careers.
But Hawkins and Willis, along with Mulder, hope to help Kentucky (24-5, 14-2) clinch the Southeastern Conference title in their home finales Tuesday night against Vanderbilt (16-13, 9-7).
Kentucky's veteran trio is averaging a combined 16.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, the best in the Calipari era. When Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas were seniors, they averaged a combined 11.6 points during the 2011-12 NCAA championship season on a squad led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
The challenges they've persevered through at Kentucky is why Hawkins and Willis are unfazed by tough opponents.
''Having to guard Tyler (Ulis) in practice last year, he made more comfortable with the ball,'' said Hawkins, who played a career-best 37 minutes in Saturday's 76-66 win over No. 13 Florida. ''I never had pressure like that before. Just seeing somebody that small fight, it motivated me to be even better.''
The energetic, defense-mind guard has had his share of memorable moments, helping Kentucky reach consecutive Final Fours his first two seasons. Injuries hampered Hawkins' season, but he has recovered to distinguish himself on both ends of the floor - most surprisingly as a distributor.
After compiling 39 assists his first three years, the Richmond, Kentucky, native has 56 with just 13 turnovers for a team-best 4.3 ratio - better than freshman teammate De'Aaron Fox (2.3), albeit in fewer minutes with fewer touches.
The 6-foot-9 Willis, a 6-foot-9 forward from Mount Washington, Kentucky who can shoot the 3, is playing 20.3 minutes a game and averaging 7.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest,.
''I feel like I've learned more playing against the players here,'' Willis said. ''I've guarded everyone from Tyler Ulis to Willie Cauley-Stein. It's just helped me out a lot more.''
Mulder meanwhile made the most of his time with long-range shots.
After scoring just 12 points all of last year after transferring from Vincennes (Indiana) University, the Canadian surpassed that total in the fourth game this season. He has scored 133 points with 30 3-pointers amd has become instant offensive off the bench.
Waiting their turns hasn't been easy for this trio, but the motivation to play at the highest level at Kentucky outweighed considerations of leaving for more minutes elsewhere. Now they are trying to finish their careers on a high note.
''I can't even put into words how much it's meant to me,'' Mulder said. ''It's been an absolute dream to be able to play on this level, and a lot of kids aren't able to do that.''
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This version corrects Kentucky's ranking from No. 8 to No. 9.