Back to the point: Which Ashton Hagans will UK get in March?
Last Saturday, Kentucky, already assured of the top overall seed in the SEC Tournament, trailed by 18 points midway through the 2nd half before roaring back to knock off likely NCAA Tournament entrant Florida in Gainesville. For most teams, it would have been a defining moment — a point at which even a lightly-numbered UK squad (8 scholarship players) struggling at times for respect displayed its tenacity and competitiveness. Just one problem — the team’s point guard wasn’t even there.
Sophomore guard Ashton Hagans, dispirited after a loss at home to Tennessee the previous Tuesday, met with UK coach John Calipari and, as Calipari put it on Twitter on the morning of the Florida game, “asked to step away for a couple days for personal reasons.” Calipari went on to note, “I support his decision. We are going to need him at 100% for the postseason.” Hm.
Ashton did not make the trip with us to Florida. He and I met a couple days ago and he asked to step away for a couple days for personal reasons. I support his decision. We are going to need him at 100% for the postseason.
— John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) March 7, 2020
For an All-SEC level player and a team leader to ask for time off for personal reasons at the end of the regular season would always be a bit odd. Rumors swirled regarding other issues behind the sabbatical. Many onlookers had viewed a skirmish between the point guard and Calipari during the Tennessee game, and insinuated that the decision to sit Hagans might have been a bit more mutual than Calipari’s comments let on. Perhaps unrelated but still disconcerting, a social media video of Hagans displaying a stack of money also surfaced in the past few days. For a player at the center of the storm of a basketball program that is always in the epicenter of the sport, it hasn’t been a smooth ride lately.
Of course, there are less controversial, but more concrete factors in play as well.
Hagans sustained a painful-looking leg injury in a game at LSU on Feb. 18. Many thought he would miss a game or two after that, and indeed Calipari didn’t start him, but played him 34 minutes in the next game. The grind of SEC play is real, and Hagans looks even smaller than the 6-3 and 198 pounds that UK reports.
And again — there is that constant grind of attention from Big Blue Nation.
Hagans is a promising but very much incomplete player in his 2nd year in Lexington. Even sitting out the Florida game, he finished the regular season leading the SEC in assists and second in steals. He also was 2nd in the league in turnovers. Despite excellent creative ability on the drive and solid touch at the foul line (81%), Hagans barely shot 40% from the floor and has never shown consistent accuracy from 3-point range.
When his game is sharp, Kentucky looks like a Final Four team.
When his game is flat, well, the Wildcats look pretty ordinary.
Even before this last round of issues, Hagans’s consistency was key for Kentucky. In UK’s 6 losses, Hagans shot 33%, including 2-for-15 from 3-point range, had 34 assists to 22 turnovers and fouled out twice. In UK’s victories, he shot 42%, including 30% from 3-point territory, and has 157 assists to 81 turnovers.
Hagans struggled throughout February, not topping 11 points in any game. He seemed noticeably out of sync on offense. Once back, his mere presence figures to help Kentucky. Even in the Florida win, guard Tyrese Maxey, asked to assume more of a point guard’s role without Hagans, responded with his worst shooting effort of the season at 1-for-11 (although he did have 7 assists).
Given that a season ago, Kentucky’s season seemed to revolve around an injury to P.J. Washington’s foot (cue BBN looking for Twitter videos of Washington on a scooter, then in a boot, and then able to play), Kentucky’s had some experience of hoping for a key late renaissance to its season. The good news is that this time, history might be on the Wildcats’ side. Calipari’s system has a funny tendency to “click” just at the point of impact for struggling young guards in March. Brandon Knight seemed to find his offensive identity just in time for a 2010 Final Four run, and similarly the “tweak” to Andrew Harrison in 2014 led to a national title game appearance.
If Kentucky’s win against Florida wasn’t definitive, it at least serves notice that whatever happens with Hagans, UK isn’t going to give up without a fight. That starts Friday with a 1 p.m. tip in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
But if that fight requires 29 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals from Keion Brooks, Nate Sestina and Johnny Juzang, as Saturday’s victory did, the Kentucky Wildcats might burn through 9 lives pretty quickly in the Big Dance.
Which Hagans will UK get on Friday and beyond? If it’s a healthy and happy Hagans, watch out for Kentucky. If not, it’s watch out, Kentucky.