For Dominique Hawkins, the clouds began parting and the sun shining through in the NCAA Tournament last spring. Throughout Kentucky's regular-season ups and downs, he consistently wondered whether he was good enough to contribute on the court.
"There was definitely a doubt about that," he said of his freshman season. "Because I felt like since I wasn't a McDonald's All-American and stuff, that I shouldn't be out there playing."
Doubt gave way to a growing confidence in the NCAA Tournament, when Hawkins became UK's designated defender. He came off the bench and helped contain first Louisville's Russ Smith, then Michigan's Nik Stauskas and finally Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, the first two central to their teams' success and the third a high-value veteran. Not so coincidentally, Kentucky won each game during an unexpected Final Four run.
Hawkins, who was named Mr. Basketball when he led Madison Central to the 2013 state championship, was no stranger to defense. Although a scorer (20.3 points per game as a high school senior), he also regularly drew the assignment to defend the opposition's top scorer.
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When asked what UK Coach John Calipari wanted from him against Louisville's Smith, Hawkins said, "He basically wanted me to keep him from scoring and be physical with him and try to drain him down."
Smith made four of 10 shots in the second half, and, maybe more telling, did not get to the foul line after shooting 10 free throws in the first half.
Against Stauskas, the idea was "just not let him get any open looks," Hawkins said. "Make him shoot a contested shot. And if he drives to the basket, make sure he tries to shoot a floater and not a layup."
After an 18-point first half (5-for-7 shooting), Stauskas struggled (1-for-7 shooting, six points) in the second half.
Dekker presented a different challenge. "I felt like he tried to get his (teammates) involved in the game more than Russ and Stauskas did," Hawkins said.
Not that defending any of those players was easy.
"I felt it was difficult because those players touch the ball, like, every play," Hawkins said. "Trying to keep the ball away from them is a hard job to do."
Hawkins brought a mentality to defense. Former UK Coach Rick Pitino called it mother-in-law defense: constant harassment.
"I feel you definitely have to have a chip on your shoulder," he said. "You want to make people feel uncomfortable when they're dribbling around you. You can tell they're feeling uncomfortable if they pass the ball really quick when you're guarding them. That's basically what we're trying to do."
Hawkins did not balk at the suggestion that the word "fun" might apply to playing defense. Of course, that depends on how the opponent plays. "It's not going to be a fun night if that player is scoring all over you," Hawkins said.
Kentucky will ask Hawkins to contribute on offense, too. Calipari has said that Hawkins need not make every shot, only enough shots to give defenses pause.
"I know people were telling me I wasn't aggressive enough on offense," Hawkins said. "And, now, I feel like I'm more comfortable with the team. They're giving me encouragement. They're telling me to shoot the ball more. Now, I feel more comfortable and my confidence is going to be better."
During the games in the Bahamas, Hawkins appeared more confident.
"Last year, I wasn't comfortable because I was ... with great players," he said. "These great players wouldn't need me to score. I wasn't needed.
"Now, I feel like I can play with them. ... I did prove people wrong. That I can actually play with them."