As illogical as it might sound, freshman Ashton Hagans may be Kentucky’s starter as well as its stopper. That is to say he can be the trigger to UK’s team defense by containing the opposition’s leading scorer and/or hot shooter.
This duality was on display in Kentucky’s 78-61 victory over UNC Greensboro last weekend. It figures to be needed again on Saturday against Seton Hall. The Pirates are led by guard Myles Powell, who ranks 20th nationally in scoring (22.4 ppg) and inspired New Hampshire to resort to a box-and-one defense earlier this week.
“When he can disrupt the other team’s point guard like that (and) make them go to different sets, it’s going to bring energy for everybody,” teammate Reid Travis said of Hagans Thursday. “When you have somebody on the ball doing what he’s doing, everybody picks it up, starts to talk more, starts to be more active.
“So the more he does that, the better our team defense is going to be.”
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Not for the first time, UK Coach John Calipari said Thursday that the quality of Kentucky’s team defense will dictate the kind of season his team has.
“At the end of the day, if we are a defense-driven team, we’re going to be pretty good,” Calipari said. “If we’re not, we’re not going to be very good.”
Both versions of Kentucky were on display against UNC Greensboro. The Spartans’ top scorer, guard Francis Alonso, scored his team’s first 11 points. Then Hagans came off the bench. Alonso did not score in the game’s final 16 minutes.
Seton Hall Coach Kevin Willard noticed.
“I thought he really works hard on the defensive end,” Willard said of Hagans. “He’s impressive with the way he changes the tempo of the game.”
How did Hagans change the tempo?
Willard answered immediately. “Effort,” he said. “He really works hard at it.”
Containing Powell may require more of the same. He leads the Pirates or shares the lead in 14 of the 27 statistical categories compiled by the NCAA. Besides scoring, that includes three-pointers per game (3.3), plus shooting accuracy from three-point range (35.3 percent) and the foul line (88.7 percent).
“He’s our guy who, obviously, we try to run a lot of offense for,” Willard said.
The box-and-one limited Powell to 10 points, but Seton Hall beat New Hampshire 77-57.
In the pre-season, Calipari touted Hagans’ tenacity. He encouraged Hagans to “keep mauling people.”
As an ever-present defender, Hagans moved Calipari to a comparison to former UK star Tyler Ulis. Only Hagans brings a bigger, stronger body to the task.
A play in the final game in the Bahamas made a lasting impression. UK led by more than 20 points. Less than seven minutes remained. But rather than concede a relatively meaningless rebound to an opponent in superior position, Hagans tried to get the ball. Then instead of retreating on defense, he tried to intercept the outlet pass.
“He’s been doing that since he was a kid,” his father, Marvin Hagans, said. “Every team he’s on, he leads them in steals and deflections. He would win that stat all the time.
“He just loves to play defense. He’s been like that since he was little.”
During a pre-season conversation, the elder Hagans suggested that Ulis might not be the best comparison to make.
“I think he’s a cross between John Wall and (Rajon) Rondo,” Marvin Hagans said. “He has John’s quickness and size, and he passes like Rondo.”
UK fans may recall that Rondo had a knack for seemingly coming out of nowhere to make a steal. As Calipari said, Hagans can make an opponent wish he was out of the field of vision.
“Impact the game without doing a whole lot of scoring,” Marvin Hagans said. “A lot of people can’t do that.”
Calipari said he had made sure that Hagans was aware of the importance of triggering Kentucky’s defense. The UK coach linked that to what every player wants: playing time.
“I just told him, ‘If you really like playing, then be that guy,’” Calipari said. “‘You’ll play a lot.’”