Hawkins still learning what Smith expects

February 27, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Playing point guard for coach Tubby Smith at the University of Kentucky has been a constant learning experience for Cliff Hawkins.

"I am still learning, too," said Hawkins. "It has been tough. He expects a lot out of you. If you are not doing what he wants, you hear about it.

"He's let me know that nothing comes easy. I was not totally prepared for everything when I came here, but I knew what I was in for and it has been a great experience."

As Hawkins' collegiate career winds down, he's playing some of his best basketball for the No. 9 Wildcats going into Sunday's game at LSU. He was 5-for-8 from the field and had 15 points, seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and one blocked shot in Wednesday's 92-60 win over Tennessee. He had 10 points and four assists in the win at Auburn. Against Arkansas, he had 11 assists.


"He's just playing great," Smith said. "Other players are responding well to him. He's really leading our team the way we need him to, especially at this time of year."

Hawkins originally planned to play for New Mexico and verbally committed there. However, he eventually changed his mind and came to Kentucky.

"I didn't even know how to run a team when I got here," Hawkins said.

He had gone to Oak Hill Academy to enhance his chances of playing Division I basketball. The small, private school in Virginia gave him no choice but to improve his basketball skills.

"After two weeks, I was ready to come home," Hawkins said. "Everybody has to overcome that. It was tough. But in my hometown, the level of competition just was not there. I wanted to play Division I and felt Oak Hill could help me do that.

"Oak Hill is on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. You had no choice but to play basketball."

Playing at Oak Hill did give Hawkins a taste of what it would be like to play for a high-profile college team. Oak Hill annually ranks among the nation's best prep teams, has a roster of Division I players and travels across the country to play games.

"Being at Oak Hill did prepare me for dealing with a lot of attention and pressure," Hawkins said. "At Oak Hill, we were No. 1 or No. 2 nationally the whole time I was there. We had a target on us every game. It was similar to Kentucky."

He averages 9.3 points, 5.1 assists

Smith credited Hawkins, who averages 9.3 points and 5.1 assists per game this year, for much of UK's success last season when he came off the bench to give the Cats a boost during their 32-4 season. This year he's started every game and again has the Cats in position to challenge for a national title.

"He's been pretty solid for us his whole career," Smith said. "He has the potential to be as good a guard as there is. He has great athleticism. I talk to him a lot about just being disciplined on both the offensive and defensive ends. Sometimes he wants to do too much. He's good enough that he should never get beat off the dribble."

Smith says he's seen Hawkins mature and "get smarter" during his career on and off the court. Hawkins missed the first part of last season when he was academically ineligible

"This has been fun. I've done a lot of growing up since I've been here," Hawkins said. "It has been a great learning experience. I came here to grow up and be an adult.

"Last year had a lot to do with my growing up process. I made decisions I regret and I had to pay for it. But I learned from my mistakes."

He's also learned that he'll miss Kentucky. The Cats play at LSU Sunday and South Carolina Wednesday before hosting Florida March 7 in what will be the final home game for Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Antwain Barbour and Hawkins.

"What I will miss most is the friendship with the guys. I built friendships here that will carry on long after I am done playing here," Hawkins said. "I'm thankful for that. I got to meet a lot of nice people and those friendships are what I'm going to miss the most."

And how does he hope Kentucky fans will remember him?

"I would like to be remembered as a guy who played hard and gave it all he had," Hawkins said. "I may not have always made the right decisions, but I tried my hardest."

He already knows what would be the perfect scenario for his final game in Rupp Arena.

"I just want to play real good, get up 20 or 30 points, come out and be able to look up at everybody. I want to be able to look up in the rafters one more time and think about all I've done. That would be special," Hawkins said.

Yet he's not ready for his career to end. He still wants to win a national title.

"I'm not ready for this ride to be over yet. We are peaking at the right time," Hawkins said. "I hope I can still make a few more memories to go with the great ones I already have."

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