Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor
Murray State junior guard Byron Hawkins is finally ready to play under the lights at the CFSB Center.
Hawkins was a familiar face on the Racer bench last year, forced to spend the entire season on the sideline due to the NCAA’s transfer eligibility rules. The NCAA requires players to sit out the following season after transferring from another Division-I school.
In his two years playing for the Towson Tigers in the Colonial Athletic Association, Hawkins averaged 13.1 PPG and added 2.1 assists and 2.4 rebounds per game.
Hawkins displayed his ability to compete against elite competition when he scored a career-high 28 points against the University of Mississippi during the Tigers’ 2015-2016 season.
After two seasons with Towson, Hawkins made the decision to transfer. He said although the Tigers amassed a winning season his sophomore year, ultimately he wanted to join a program with a winning culture.
“We didn’t have the fan support that we have here in Murray,” Hawkins said. “Obviously Murray has a winning tradition. I did win my sophomore year at Towson, but we didn’t win the championship. It’s not really known as a winning school.”
That’s when Hawkins found a new home in Murray State. He said the avid fan support and the school’s devotion to maintaining a winning tradition was the driving force in his decision to join the Racers.
“I wanted to feel like I was more in college basketball,” Hawkins said. “With the home games and how crazy they get, I wanted to be more of a focus here in this smaller town.”
This smaller town has been good to transfers in recent years. Last season, University of Texas transfer Damarcus Croaker averaged 10.9 PPG and 4.9 RPG. Murray State senior guard Jonathan Stark, who sat out the 2015-2016 season after transferring from Tulane, erupted to average 21.3 PPG, leading the OVC in scoring.
After seeing the results pay off for Stark in his breakout inaugural season for the Racers, Hawkins said he had to follow in the senior’s footsteps.
“I was just in the gym constantly,” Hawkins said. “I took that from Stark. Coach told me that Stark lived in the gym, and we see what it’s done for him, so hopefully done the same.”
With the NCAA restricting a transfer player’s involvement with his new program to solely practice, Hawkins said he had to find ways to challenge himself to make the necessary improvements to his game in practice in lieu of competing in a traditional game environment.
“The attitude I had, and Stark and coach helped me with, was that you just have to make the practices like your games, and your workouts have to be very, very hard; harder than what you’ve done in the past because you’re not going to have game reps,” Hawkins said. “There’s nothing like game reps – that’s where you get better, too.”
Hawkins said his devotion to working throughout last season has resulted in major strides in his skill set. He said his ball handling, shooting, defense and quickness have all matured exponentially over the past year. And as the season draws closer, Hawkins said he’s anticipating getting a chance to put those skills on full display for the first time in a Racer uniform.
“It’s almost like you’ve got a little light at the end of the tunnel with all of this preparation,” Hawkins said. “Last year I was preparing for the long run more so, but now I’m preparing for the go-time. I’m just excited. I’ve already had it dated in my phone since 100 days.”
One man who’s seen the maturation of both Hawkins and Stark, Head Coach Matt McMahon, said he’s noticed parallels between the two guards’ preparation and remains hopeful Hawkins will have an immediate impact on the Racers this season.
“I think Byron took a similar approach [to Stark’s offseason],” McMahon said. “I think he spent a lot of time in the gym, a lot of time learning the system offensively and defensively. You see some transfers that fail to take advantage of that year when they’re sitting out and I think Jonathan and Byron took full advantage and we hope both will reap the benefits this season.”