When Kentucky plays Vanderbilt on Saturday night, the always all-important point guard matchup appears to have a David-and-Goliath quality. And David does not have a slingshot.
Nineteen steals in the last four games shows how effective UK point guard Ashton Hagans has been in disrupting opponents.
“You know, just playing my game,” he said of this average of 4.8 steals per game (which, if maintained, would almost double Rajon Rondo’s record of 2.6 steals in 2004-05).
When asked about Hagans’ 19 steals, assistant coach Joel Justus said, “That’s the guy you want on your team. . . . Disruptive (over) 94 feet. You have the opposing point guards looking over their shoulders, and other guys wondering where is this guy? That’s an unsettling feeling for a point guard to have somebody come after you for as long as Ashton does.”
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Of course, Vanderbilt lost its five-star freshman point guard, Darius Garland, to a season-ending injury on Nov. 23. The Commodores are improvising by running offense through another five-star freshman. But the Plan B, Simisola Shittu, is a 6-foot-10 forward/center.
As the careful and wary coach, Justus downplayed the notion of a mismatch.
“However they decide to bring the ball up the floor, that’s something we’ll have to adjust to,” Justus said. “I think Ashton’s going to impose his will on a game whether they have a point guard or a non-traditional point guard.”
Hagans has been disruptive without fouling. In UK’s last four games, he’s played 118 minutes and been called for a total of nine fouls.
Hagans attributed this to lessons learned early this season. He played 20 and 13 minutes in UK’s first two games. He had four and three fouls in those games.
“In high school, you can foul all you want, and the coach is going to leave you in the game,” Hagans said. “Knowing in college, that two-foul rule is real. You get those two fouls, you’re not getting back in the first half.”
As for those 19 steals, Hagans credited UK Coach John Calipari for giving him the freedom to gamble.
“Cal just lets me play my role,” he said. “Lets me go for balls I can get.”
Justus cited depth as a “great part” of UK’s success.
“Who is going to be the guy that steps up today in practice, and who’s going to be the guy who steps up in the game,” he said. “That’s the exciting part of the process. You’re just waiting to see who is next.”
Yanni Wetzell sat out last season after transferring to Vandy from St. Mary’s. He said he drove to Lexington to watch last season’s game in Rupp Arena.
“It’s insane,” he said of the Rupp Arena experience. “When I was there, they packed it out. It felt like an NBA arena. The atmosphere was a happening. I’m excited to play there.”
The headline “Three-point U” appears in the notes package Vanderbilt provides the media. Vanderbilt is one of three programs that have made a three-point shot in every game since the rule went into effect in the 1986-87 season. Vandy’s streak of making a three-pointer is 1,045 games.
When asked at SEC Media Day about the importance Vandy places on its three-point streak, Coach Bryce Drew said, “We talked about this as a coaching staff. We don’t want that record broken under our watch.”
The other two programs that have made a three-point shot in every game are Princeton and UNLV.
UK and Garland
Freshman point guard Darius Garland featured prominently in Vandy’s plans for the season. “I’m not trying to be a hero,” he said at SEC Media Day in October. “I just want to play basketball. . . . I’m the leader of the team. I have the key to his car. Wear a seat belt. Don’t be reckless.”
Then, of course, Garland sustained a season-ending knee injury in the team’s fifth game.
Garland, a five-star recruit from Nashville, recalled being recruited by Kentucky and UK’s pitch.
“I could be one of the next great players at Kentucky. . . . ,” he said. “It humbled me. I really liked Kentucky.”
In committing to Vandy, Garland said, “I went with my gut.”
Where are they?
Three Vanderbilt players finished their careers last season as 1,000-point scorers.
Riley LaChance is playing professionally in Poland. Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson are playing in the G League. Roberson is playing for the Maine Red Claws (the Celtics’ affiliate) while Fisher-Davis is playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (the Rockets’ affiliate).
▪ Vandy has a 1-0 record against ranked opponents. The Commodores beat then No. 18 Arizona State 81-65 on Dec. 17.
▪ Dave Neal and Daymeon Fishback will call the game for the SEC Network.