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Hawkins embraces being a problem defensively

Jan. 19—+9

Bob's buzzer beaters — That's more like it

"Defense wins," UI coach Brad Underwood said. "Just a solid road win — these things are hard to do in this league."

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Coleman Hawkins had a perpetual grin on his face Thursday night at the Crisler Center.

It wasn't just because the Illinois men's basketball team he plays such a vital role for pulled away in the second half during an 88-73 victory that kept Michigan coach Juwan Howard winless against the Illini. The 21 points and 10 rebounds Hawkins put up in the win — his first double-double of the season — was part of, but not the entire, cause either.

Hawkins simply takes real joy in being a defensive menace. Loves causing problems. Lives for the moments where the opposing coach goes off on a player for falling victim to Hawkins' long-armed defense. Seeing teams wilt in the face of pressure.

Like Michigan did Thursday night.

Hawkins got into the top 10 in program history, tied with several former Illini, for single-game steals with six against the Wolverines. It's a list dominated by Bruce Douglas, who holds the top spot with eight and has half of the seven-steal games for the Illini.

The rest of that list is guard-heavy.

Kendall Gill.

Derek Harper.

Trent Frazier the last to swipe at least six balls in a Feb. 20, 2021, blowout win at Minnesota.

Hawkins, a 6-foot-10 forward, sticks out in that group. And his six-steal performance Thursday against Michigan doesn't take into account the number of deflections he had or how often he derailed a Wolverines possession by his ability to defend guards as readily as bigs.

"It's fun playing defense, being everywhere and just causing problems," Hawkins said. "It's funny. In high school, I hated playing defense. Slowly, in college, I just bought in, and I love playing defense now. I love getting stops. I love taking peoples' basketball. It's a lot of fun."

Hawkins started studying Kawhi Leonard two years ago in an effort to fine-tune his defensive capabilities on. The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team selection is nicknamed "The Claw" both because of his notably large hands and how effective he is using them at the defensive end.

"People are so used to being able to have the ball where they want," Hawkins said. "Whenever I see a ball in a place, I just try to swipe at it. Just try to make someone uncomfortable. A lot of times, people in the paint, if they don't have a shot, they don't have a decision. They're trying to think and move the ball around.

"That's my opportunity — especially when I'm guarding a non-shooter. When I guard non-shooters, I'm able to float around a little bit more. That's my opportunity to get my hand on the basketball and swipe down. It's all ball. It's not a foul."

Hawkins committed just one foul Thursday against Michigan after fouling out in last Sunday's home loss to Maryland. Avoiding foul trouble kept him on the court for 36 minutes of havoc against the Wolverines and arguably his most complete game of the season with 21 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high four assists to go with his half dozen steals.

"I keep saying he's the best big man in college basketball," Illinois guard Ty Rodgers said. "The way he defends. He had six steals. What other 5-man is doing that? He's tremendous. I don't even know what to say. He's great in all aspects. He can shoot. He can lead the team. He's a great defender and can switch one through five. He's just great."

The way Hawkins played Thursday night in Ann Arbor — the effect he had at both ends of the court — is something Illinois forward Quincy Guerrier said the team needs more of through the end of the season. Playing at that high of a level has a direct correlation to the team's success, with No. 14 Illinois (13-4, 4-2) set to host Rutgers (10-7, 2-4) at noon on Sunday.

"He has to keep doing what he's doing for us to be successful," Guerrier said. "He communicates. He's smart. He knows what to do defensively to make the right play, and he's always in a good position. He facilitates everything for us. He's a great passer. He's a great defender. He's probably the best shooting 5 in the country."

Illinois coach Brad Underwood has run through all of those superlatives this season for Hawkins, who is playing his best basketball in his fourth season with the Illini. Known for making a player comparison or two as a coach, Underwood doesn't have a good comp for Hawkins given the combination of size, length and skill set the Sacramento, Calif., native boasts.

Underwood has seen maturity, confidence and growth in Hawkins this season. How Illinois is utilizing his strengths as essentially a point-center doesn't hurt. Because it's settling in offensively, the Illini coach said, that has helped Hawkins fully blossom as a defender.

"Usually it's the other way around," Underwood said. "When Coleman over-dribbles and does those things, it puts him in trouble. Now he's just recognizing the fact he's a really good shooter and he can play in space. He's not trying to make super fancy passes. He's trying to make simple plays.

"He's got such a cerebral approach to (defense). He understands scouting reports. He understands what the other team is trying to do. He's just got great anticipation, and he's got elite hands. Now he's just having fun because he's competing at a really high level."