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My 10 Favorite Razorback Basketball Players: No. 6 - Darrell Hawkins

And so my countdown of my 10 favorite Razorback basketball players drags on. A mere two months after writing about No. 7, here's my post on No. 6. Let it never be said that I'm not a man of swift and decisive action. But I digress.

More than 30 years of following Hog hoops left me with no shortage of worthy candidates, and whittling down the list of potential honorees to just 10 hasn't been easy. Nevertheless, I have bravely soldiered on. One quick note: I've limited the list to players that have played for the Razorbacks since I became a fan in the 1979-80 season, when I was seven years old. That was the year after Sidney Moncrief's senior season. With that bit of context, on to No. 6 (btw, here's nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10) ...

Before a certain NCAA Tournament game in March 1992, I had never paid much attention to Darrell Hawkins. Every now and then, he would throw down a vicious tomahawk dunk or score in double digits, but for the most part, he had been an unremarkable player at Arkansas. A member of the landmark 1988 recruiting class along with Todd Day, Lee Mayberry, Oliver Miller and Lenzie Howell, he had come nowhere close to matching the contributions of those four.

But against the Memphis State Tigers (as they were known back then) in the second round of the '92 tournament, one couldn't help but notice Hawkins. That's because it almost seemed like he was the only Razorback player interested in winning the game.

With an intensity that in retrospect seems both a little frightening and a lot amusing, I desperately wanted Arkansas to win the game. At the time, I was a freshman at Rhodes College in Memphis, and I had been in The Pyramid earlier that same season when the unranked Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway, beat the No. 5 Razorbacks, 92-88. Witnessing firsthand the earth-shaking celebration of Tiger fans was a bitter pill to swallow, and knowing how much those fans were salivating at the chance to again knock off the Hogs, I couldn't bear the thought of Memphis State ending Arkansas' season.

In my semi-crazed state, I was perhaps more susceptible than others to being inspired by Hawkins' performance that afternoon. But even sane souls had to agree that the forward was mighty impressive.

With his more celebrated teammates turning in a stunningly uninspired effort and the Tigers on the verge of upsetting the Hogs for the second time in two months, Hawkins took matters into his own hands. Time and time again, he drove fearlessly to the basket. Time and time again, he drew a foul. And time and time again, he calmly sank the resulting free throws. When the afternoon was over, Hawkins was, amazingly, the Razorbacks' leading scorer, having scored 22 points and made 12 of his 13 free-throw attempts.

Memphis State beat Arkansas that day, 82-80, after Tiger forward David Vaughn tipped in a missed field goal with about five seconds to go. Mayberry narrowly missed a desperation three at the buzzer, and the Day-Miller-Mayberry era was suddenly and shockingly over. But Darrell Hawkins was just getting started.

Thanks to a torn Achilles tendon that forced him to redshirt the 1990-91 season, Hawkins was a fifth-year senior the year after Day, Miller and Mayberry completed their eligibility. Not surprisingly, the expectations for the Hogs heading into that season were pretty low. The best-case scenario seemed to be an NIT bid; several prognosticators said a losing record was in the offing. All-everything recruit Corliss Williamson had come on board, but otherwise the roster appeared to be sorely lacking the necessary firepower.

In no small part because of Hawkins' amazing leadership, though, the '93 Razorbacks wildly exceeded expectations. His performance in the NCAA loss to Memphis State seemed to transform Darrell: he took the reins of the young Hogs from day one and became their unquestioned emotional center. He was basically a coach on the floor, handing out encouragement or a scolding when needed. You got the feeling that none of his teammates dared disregard his words.

Freed the considerable shadow of Day, Mayberry and Miller (insert joke here), he also proved that he was just one hell of a player, scoring 20 or more points seven times that season. Some of his more memorable efforts included the 20 points he notched in the season opener, when the green Razorbacks turned the tables and upset No. 8 Memphis State, and the 20 he scored against St. John's in the second round of the NCAA to propel the Hogs to the Sweet Sixteen. In the first round of the tournament against Holy Cross, he narrowly missed a triple-double: he had only nine points but 11 rebounds and - incredibly - eight steals.

As I've said before, that was my favorite season of Razorback basketball. Even the team's losses were inspiring. In a second-round SEC Tournament game against Kentucky - played in the oh-so-neutral setting of Rupp Arena - the Wildcats roared out to an early 17-0 lead (yes, you read that right), but the Hogs managed to close the score to 57-55 before fading down the stretch and losing by 11. The sight of Hawkins furiously diving for loose balls during the thrilling near-comeback is one of my most vivid memories of the game.

In the regional semifinal of the NCAA, seemingly over-matched Arkansas surprisingly gave eventual champion North Carolina all the Tar Heels could handle. I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a Hog team than I was that night. Hawkins didn't have a great game against North Carolina but he hit a big three in the waning minutes to keep the Hogs within striking distance.

Hawkins' Arkansas career came to an end that night in East Rutherford. One year later, the Razorbacks would hoist the national championship trophy in Charlotte; it's hard to imagine them doing so without the hard-working tone Hawkins set and the leadership he provided the season before.

Hawkins may not have been a national champion, but he was a champion nevertheless.