There have been plenty of new players in the Western Athletic Conference this season, but the most productive one just might be New Mexico State forward Justin Hawkins.
Hawkins, who sat out last year after transferring from Utah, is averaging 16 points and seven rebounds for the Aggies, who have put together a 22-7 record entering Saturday's game (7:05 p.m., ESPN2) against ninth-ranked Nevada at Lawlor Events Center.
"No question," said NMSU coach Reggie Theus when asked if he thought Hawkins was the most impressive newcomer. "I think you have to look at Reggie Larry (Boise State). I'd put Dominic McGuire (Fresno State) in that category, too.
"You have to look at where their teams are, and what they've done to help them win. Hawk has carried a lot of the load."
Hawkins carried the load the first time Nevada and NMSU met, scoring a career-high 29 points and pulling down 11 rebounds, including nine at the offensive end.
Most of Hawkins' success was a result of Nevada having to go to a zone because its man defense wasn't working well and Nick Fazekas was saddled with foul trouble.
New Mexico State's strategy was simple. Hawkins ran the baseline, and found numerous holes in Nevada's zone which allowed him to get in position for offensive rebounds, lay-ups and short open jump shots.
"When teams zone, coach Theus has me run the baseline," Hawkins said. "I got some good looks. I just found a way to put the ball in the basket.
"It was a great game for us. We were just coming off a loss. It was a team we were looking forward to playing all year because they are like the best team in the league. We were pumped up and ready for them."
Teams have found that the 6-7 210-pound Hawkins can do it all.
"He's a terrific player," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "He can score the ball, runs the floor and rebounds. We have to do our best job to contain him."
Hawkins is proof positive that sometimes a change of scenery is all a player needs, though had Rick Majerus not left Utah, Hawkins may never have hooked up with NMSU coach Reggie Theus.
"My freshman year I averaged around 20 minutes a game, which was a good amount for a freshman," Hawkins said. "The best thing were the practices. I got to learn so much. He (Majerus) taught me a lot about the game, and a lot has carried over to today.
"I wasn't happy there with the new coach (Ray Giacoletti). He had a whole new system. I didn't feel I could be the best player I could be. He (Giacoletti) moved me into the post. He wanted me to play with my back to the basket. I didn't like that."
Hawkins averaged 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds, but he wasn't happy. He wanted to play on the perimeter, because he thought that was his best opportunity to get to the professional ranks. So, the former Anaheim, Calif. prep star decided to look for greener pastures.
"I didn't know his dad, but he knew of me," Theus said. "We had mutual friends in the AAU world. I called people that knew him from AAU when I got the job. I got a phone call from Justin saying he wanted to play for me. I met his parents and that was it - point blank and straight forward. I told him what I was trying to do, and he told me what he was looking for."
That didn't mean that Hawkins was given a free ticket.
"Obviously he felt he was more than a low-post guy," Theus said. "I told him that with our team and the type of offense we play that he would get the opportunity to play inside and out, and that he would have to prove to me he could play a 3 (small forward).
"I told him it was up to him to prove to me that he could do it. There was no doubt in my mind that he could play on the perimeter."
It took a tremendous amount of work, but Hawkins was up to the task. He would spend hours in the gym working on his ballhandling and shooting.
And, he soaks up the knowledge that Theus imparts on a daily basis.
"He's definitely a player's coach," Hawkins said. "He's probably one of the best in college basketball. He's been there and done that. He knows what it's like to be in our shoes. You listen to what he's saying, because he knows what he's talking about."
The two have formed a mutual admiration society. Theus certainly loves Hawkins' work ethic.
"I love the fact that he's a gym rat," Theus said.
However, the coach said earlier this year that Hawkins was spending too much time in there. It got so bad that on some game days, Hawkins would be shooting in the arena at 9 a.m., participate in the team's shootaround at noon and then come in at 5:30 p.m. to shoot some more.
You like to see that kind of dedication, but not at the expense of being too tired.
"I'm still in there, but not as long," Hawkins said.