Vaught's Views: Unflappable Hawkins still underrated

March 11, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

ATLANTA - Perhaps it's best that Cliff Hawkins' role for the University of Kentucky is unnoticed by so many.

That makes it easier for the senior point guard to disrupt and/or surprise opponents as he has all season. Yet if most players who have to play against Hawkins were asked about his talent, there's little doubt how they would rate the UK guard.

Still, Hawkins was named only to the all-Southeastern Conference third team by The Associated Press in voting by one media member representing each of the league's 12 schools. And even that was more recognition than the SEC coaches gave him when they left him off their all-SEC team announced Wednesday.

Maybe that omission will be even more inspiration for Hawkins when he takes the court Friday afternoon in the SEC Tournament against either Georgia or Auburn.


Hawkins is averaging a career-high 9.9 points per game this year for the nation's eighth-ranked team. He already has 148 assists and 62 steals, both career-high marks that put him among the conference leaders. He is even shooting a career-high 41.9 percent from the field and is pulling off 3.1 rebounds per game, another high mark in his career.

The one point guard in the league who probably has had a better overall season is Georgia's Rashad Wright, who helped the Bulldogs beat UK twice this season.

"He's the best guard we have played against," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said earlier this month. "He can control a game on either end. Cliff can on the defensive end, but he's not always as consistent on the offensive end. Wright can beat you on both ends."

Wright was picked by the coaches as the SEC's defensive player of the year, an honor that Hawkins certainly had to be next in line to receive.

But Hawkins has also shown he can make game-winning offensive plays. Remember the 3-point shot he hit at Tennessee in January that forced overtime in a game UK eventually won? That game might have saved UK's season. He's also scored in double figures in six of the last eight games, including a team-high 21 points in a win at South Carolina.

He has had three games with nine or more assists

More importantly, Hawkins has had three games with nine or more assists in UK's last six outings.

"He comes to play every time. You can't get him out of his game," Wright said Wednesday.

Wright and Hawkins could meet again Friday afternoon if Georgia beats Auburn today. That would suit Wright.

"I love playing against him. He doesn't back down. He's a competitor just like me," Wright said.

However, what has made Hawkins' play more important for Kentucky this season is that he's learned to control that competitiveness. He doesn't try to erase a mistake with a spectacular play that could lead to another miscue. Instead, he keeps his emotions under control.

Smith has slowly given him more freedom on the court. He's gone from a player the coach thought might never learn to run his system three years ago to a point guard that now has the authority to call many of UK's offensive sets. Hawkins now determines when to push the pace or when to back off the transition game.

Three UK teammates - Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch and Chuck Hayes - were all honored by the SEC coaches. Normally, that would be more than enough for any one team. But considering the way UK dominated the SEC Eastern Division and the 29-3 mark the Cats have had in regular-season league games the last two years, it's still hard to understand why Hawkins' role has been so underrated.

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