Hawkins ready to battle again with Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor

UNLV junior guard helped lock down Badgers star a year ago, and will need to help do so this weekend in Madison

An argument can be made that he’s the best point guard in college basketball today.

And Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor will have plenty of motivation when tip-off comes on Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center against UNLV.

He was frustrated for the better part of the second half in last season’s narrow 68-65 loss to the Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center. On top of the revenge factor, though, the Badgers are in need of a quality non-conference win after losing at North Carolina last Wednesday, then suffering a rare home defeat at the hands of in-state rival Marquette last Saturday afternoon.

The supporting cast around Wisconsin’s star senior point guard has been inconsistent, and in turn, the team’s overall results have been, too.

But if the Badgers (7-2) are going to defend their home turf against the Rebels (9-1), it all starts with him.

“We’ve run into some pretty good point guards this year, but he’s a terrific player,” UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “He’s always in control of what’s going on, and you look at his assist-to-turnover numbers, he’s just fabulous.”

This season, Taylor has roughly a 4.5-to-1 ratio in that department, and right now he’s averaging a career-best 5.7 assists per game. That number is even more impressive considering how much of the scoring load Taylor carries for the Badgers, as well.

At 12.4 points per game, he’s the team’s leading scorer this season, though his numbers are down from a year ago. Last season, he shot 43.3 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from deep while averaging 18.1 points a game, establishing himself as one of the most well-rounded guards in the nation. His percentages (39.6 from the floor, 35.1 from long range) are down this year, but it doesn’t mean he’ll be any less aggressive than usual this weekend. He’s a well-rounded scorer who can take over a game at any moment.

UNLV junior guard Justin Hawkins is well aware of that.

Hawkins drew a tough assignment off of the bench against Taylor in last year’s meeting, but he ended up being a spark for the Rebels in a gritty game that was played at Wisconsin’s pace.

“You’ve just got to lock in every time,” Hawkins said of guarding Taylor. “He’s definitely the toughest point guard I’ve had to defend.”

And Hawkins will likely see plenty of Taylor on Saturday.

He played 20 minutes in last year’s meeting, but only attempted one shot, exerting most of his energy on the defensive end. This season, with a bump in his minutes, he’s been a consistent producer on both ends. Fresh off of a 23-point performance in Wednesday’s blowout of Cal State San Marcos, he’s averaging 11.2 points per game and attempting twice as many shots per game (8.3) as he did a year ago (4.0).

But his 2.3 steals per game are also tops on the team.

He had five of them on Wednesday night, as UNLV once again created easy offense with its perimeter defense. With the exception of last Sunday’s loss at Wichita State, that has been UNLV’s bread and butter this season in triggering its transition offense. If the Rebels are going to successfully push the pace against a slow-it-down opponent, that’s where it starts.

And Hawkins, again, will carry plenty of that responsibility against Taylor.

“He’s always in attack mode, whether he’s setting up for himself or the rest of his teammates,” he said. “You’ve just got to lock in and be ready for a battle.”