Dominique Hawkins is not Kentucky’s star player going into this week’s NCAA Tournament play. However, he could turn out to be UK’s most important player.
The showcase players are freshmen Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo. They are UK’s top scorers and all are considered likely No. 1 NBA draft picks in June. They've all been the subject of national media features and certainly will be put in the spotlight by CBS-TV.
However, the most reliable and energetic player on the team is Hawkins, the senior that Kentucky coach John Calipari called “old reliable” earlier this season.
“He presses and gets us up. He helps on offense because he gets people in the right spots,” said freshman center Bam Adebayo. “He’s a warrior, which is the best thing you can have as a teammate.
“He fights and always plays hard. He plays unbelievable defense. He just gets the job done and makes us get it done.”
He certainly did at the SEC Tournament in Nashville. He had a career-high 14 points in Sunday's win over Arkansas along with four steals, two assists and two rebounds. He also drew two charges.
Not only was he named to the all-tournament team, but UK fans were chanting, “MVP,” and thought he should have got the award as the tournament's best player that went to Fox.
Many Kentucky fans have wanted to see Hawkins in the starting lineup. He’s been a fan favorite since he led Madison Central to the state high school championship four years ago and then announced he would come to Kentucky.
But he’s so good at what he does coming off the bench, starting him would seem to negate what he does best. Hawkins can come in for almost anyone in the lineup except Bam Adebayo and it’s a given he will bring instant energy. Not every player can do that.
“I don’t even want to start. I like coming off the bench,” Hawkins said. “I get to see how the flow of the game is going and see how who I am guarding is handling the ball and how I can pressure them.”
Hawkins laughed when told he might “be too good to start” because of his spark off the bench.
“I take pride in what I do, but whatever the coach needs me to do is what I am going to go for,” Hawkins said. “But coming off the bench is good for me.”
No matter what he does, teammates consider him a starter already.
“He brings energy. He makes shots. Dom brings it every time he’s in the game,” sophomore Isaiah Briscoe said. “He plays like starter minutes I think and for us in the NCAA, he’ll need to play big minutes like he has been.”
“I don’t consider him a sixth man. He’s a starter,” Adebayo said. “When Dom comes in, the pace of our game does not slow down or speed up because there’s nothing he can’t do when he comes in. Dom is just unbelievable and I am glad we have him.”
However, the next Kentucky loss is the final game for Hawkins unless the Cats run the table in NCAA play and then he’ll go out as a national champion. He’s been on two Final Four teams and hopes to make it three.
“I am very satisfied with my role and how I am helping this team,” Hawkins said. “I know if somebody is not having a great game, then I need to step it up. Defensive-wise, I just want to put pressure on the ball, stay in front of my man and take charges. It’s just been an unbelievable experience here.
We’ve done it all except win a championship and hopefully we can do that this year.”
Hawkins hopes the recent close games UK has had — and won in a variety of ways — helps the team in NCAA play that starts Friday night in Indianapolis against Northern Kentucky University. If UK wins, it will play the Dayton-Wichita State survivor on Sunday.
“As a team want to show everybody we can finish off games,” Hawkins said. “Our offense is way better with Malik (Monk) hitting shots because one guy has to stick on him and the floor opens more for other guys to make plays. But if Malik has an off night, we know somebody has to step up and score.
We rely on Malik to score the ball for us. If he is not scoring, Coach tells us to go to somebody else who has the hot hand.”
That can be Hawkins. Maybe not for long stretches, but he has a propensity for hitting shots when they count the most.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Adebayo said. “It seems like every time he scores it is when we need it most. It’s just part of what makes him so good.”
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Before Kentucky played in the SEC Tournament, I got a chance to ask ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas what he thought would be the biggest key to UK having more success in the NCAA Tournament this year than it had last year.
His quick answer — defense — and UK continued its recent improved defensive play at the SEC tourney.
“I don't think Kentucky can rely upon outscoring people. And when I say outscore people, obviously you have to score more points than them to win. Like there's a lot of teams -- there's some teams out there that are not as defensive-oriented. So they're going to try to just be more efficient offensively than you, just kind of try to pile up points and you can't score enough to beat them,” Bilas said.
“I don't think Kentucky can afford to do that. They've got to really be -- they've got to be at their best defensively. You get down against a good team in the NCAA Tournament, it's going to be a short stay. But they're capable of second weekend. But they're also, being as young as they are, the second-round game is going to be difficult depending on what matchup they draw. I mean, they've seen that when they got Indiana (and lost in the second round last year). It’s not easy.”
Calipari is on the same page with Bilas. He said after the SEC tourney championship that he would take his team over any other team in the country.
“If we don't defend, we'll lose real fast, like real fast. We guard and play with great energy and disrupt and do the things we've been doing, it should be a fun NCAA Tournament,” the UK coach said.
“You can’t have one or two guys breaking down defensively —the reason: we’re fast. I’m not worried much about offense. Defend and rebound, and someone else will pick up the slack. We’ve been down and up, but we’re better than we were three weeks ago and these kids are in a great state of mind.”
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Before he had any idea who would be the No. 1 seeds of what the NCAA brackets might look like, Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy picked who he thought might be the best four teams.
“Gonzaga has to be among them, I think,” DeCourcy said. “Kansas has flaws, but also some serious strengths and Josh Jackson is so good as a team's second best player. There is little beyond the first group. The only team as limited on the bench is Villanova. They have no size on the bench.
I would still put North Carolina in there.”
Guess what? DeCourcy accurately predicted all four No. 1 seeds even though two of them – Carolina and Kansas – lost in conference tournament play.
Kentucky is a No. 2 seed but DeCourcy says the recent play of Fox, who has scored 27 and 28 points in two of his last four games, is a huge plus for UK going into the tournament.
“Until De'Aaron Fox plays like De'Aaron Fox, you couldn't feel great about where Kentucky was headed,” DeCourcy said. “I have never seen a point guard who can pick up his dribble 12 feet from the basket and still get a layup. He does that all the time with his length and dexterity.
“If Fox is 100 percent, and it looks like he is, then I have no worries about Kentucky. He's that important to them.”
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Freshman linebacker Jamin Davis of Ludowici, Ga., doesn’t know Georgia basketball player J.J. Frazier personally. However, he knew plenty about Georgia’s star player.
“I knew of him being from there in my hometown,” Davis said. “The area where we come from is kind of overlooked by coaches. Every year we have some talented players that get overlooked. There is so much talent in our area in different sports that never gets a look and never gets out of there. That’s why I kind of looked up to him for what he did.”
Frazier said during last week’s SEC Tournament that he didn’t know a lot about Davis, either, but understands how he feels.
“Any time we can get out from where we are from it is always a big deal,” Frazier said. “That’s a big step in his life to sign with Kentucky and I am happy for him. I think everybody has someone like that or something to use to help yourself and get an extra boost of confidence. I have used that, too. If in some small way I helped inspire him, I could not be happier.”
Davis was just the second player in Long County High School history to sign with a Division I football program.
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Before defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh left Kentucky to join the Maryland staff, he noted that sophomore Adrian Middleton had become a player versatile enough to play any defensive line position.
“I feel like I can fill that role,” Middleton said. “It’s not that hard to learn all the spots. It’s not any tougher than regular school work. You just focus on what you have to do and not worry.”
Middleton was redshirted in 2014, played sparingly in 2015 and then blossomed into a regular performer last season.
“It took quite a bit longer for me to show what I could do,” Middleton, who played at South Warren High School in Bowling Green, said. “Last year I got the opportunity to start and felt I did a pretty good job.”
Before that, Middleton might have been known for his hair than his play by many UK fans.
“I feel like I gained some recognition within the community for more than just the hair but for my football ability as well,” he laughed and said. “I am very excited for what is ahead. We are improving and can win multiple games again this year.”
Middleton says there is great high school football competition in Bowling Green that helped motivate him. He has known UK linebacker Eli Brown since middle school when they played together.
“Eli is getting a lot better. He was always a feature guy. In high school he was that guy for their team. Now he can be that guy at Kentucky with what I am seeing,” Middleton said.
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Quote of the week: “Coach (Darrin) Hinshaw preaches there is no mutiny among us. We are all on the same team and trying to reach the same goal — a national championship,” freshman Danny Clark on the UK quarterback competition in spring practice.
Quote of the week 2: “I think they should put the Final Four in one spot. Pick the best city for it and keep it in one spot. I think you've got a good city for it. I think Indianapolis is a great city for the Final Four because you can walk everywhere,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas on NCAA tourney sites.
Quote of the week 3: “Bam (Adebayo) at Kentucky. He guarded our centers and kept them from scoring and guarded our point guard and kept him from scoring because he can move his feet so well,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew when asked about some of the SEC’s best defensive players.
Dominique Hawkins -- shown with his all-tournament trophy -- had a career-high 14 points Sunday, but says he likes coming off the bench more than starting. (Vicky Graff Photo)