The way recent University of Kentucky men's basketball signee Cliff Hawkins figures it, he had the perfect recruiting experience--relatively hassle-free and with the happiest of endings.

Hawkins, a former Potomac High School player who now attends Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., verbally committed to New Mexico during the summer. He wavered on his decision as the official signing date loomed and last week asked his family to contact Kentucky to set up a visit.

By the end of the week, the 6-foot-1, left-handed point guard had signed with the Wildcats.

"I had liked Kentucky before, but I just made a quick decision when I decided to go out to New Mexico," said Hawkins, who was drawn west by a former summer league coach now on the Lobos staff. New Mexico's coaches "were really nice to me and my family and really recruited me harder than anyone else. But I really thought about it and decided I didn't want to be that far away. I decided when I visited that Kentucky was the place I wanted to go."

Signing a point guard was a Kentucky objective, and the Wildcats had missed out on other prospects. Hawkins is generally considered one of the top 50 high school seniors in the country.

"I'm really glad they decided to have me," he said. "I don't think they watched me play much, but they watched enough [to think] that I can play at Kentucky."

Hawkins, who helped lead Potomac to two state runner-up finishes, said the greatest advantage to committing early to New Mexico was that it all but eliminated him from the recruiting scene he so detests.

"I don't like talking to a whole bunch of different people and being hounded by people," Hawkins said. "I really don't like the attention."

Come next year, he might not have a choice. As a freshman, Hawkins is expected to back up senior Saul Smith at point guard before challenging for a starting position his sophomore year.

"I'll have to learn to deal with it," Hawkins said.

Kentucky might feel closer to home than New Mexico more than just geographically. Hawkins is friends with freshman guard Keith Bogans, from DeMatha, and Wildcats Coach Tubby Smith has close relatives in Prince William County.

Oak Hill Coach Steve Smith said he did not know Hawkins was having second thoughts about attending New Mexico until last Monday. Smith said he is accustomed to players second-guessing a college choice, so he encouraged the pensive Hawkins to sleep on his initial commitment before looking elsewhere. Hawkins decided to visit Lexington, Ky., which he did Friday. He signed with the Wildcats the next day, after returning home.

"When he finally signed with Kentucky, he was happy and his old self again," Steve Smith said. "He feels he has a chance to go in and help as a freshman and compete for a national championship."

Hawkins, who has not yet qualified academically to play in college, last year averaged 12.7 points, 6.2 assists and 4.2 steals as Oak Hill's only nonsenior starter. His 130 steals set a school record. That mark might fall this season. In three exhibition games, Hawkins has averaged 10 points, 11 assists and more than 7 steals.

His goal, besides helping Oak Hill (31-0 in 1998-99) to another No. 1 ranking in USA Today, is to average double figures in points and assists while reducing his turnovers.

"After a game, the only thing he wants to know is how many steals and how many assists he had," Steve Smith said. "Not once has he asked how many points he had. There are very few of those guys around. I've been here 15 years, and he's the best on-the-ball defender I've ever had."