You could say Kentucky Coach John Calipari tried to dampen expectations of a matchup of marquee point guards involving Ashton Hagans against LSU’s Tremont Waters.
“They’re two really good players, but different,” Calipari said in previewing Tuesday night’s game in Rupp Arena. “Tremont does an unbelievable job of stealing the ball on defense and creating havoc that way. And then offensively, he really sees the court and can score. He’s terrific.
“Our guy (can) speed that game up. Put pressure on the ball.”
The coaches and media both voted Waters to their preseason All-Southeastern Conference first team. Hagans has been a two-time Freshman of the Week. In league play, they rank first (Waters) and second (Hagans) in steals, second (Waters) and fourth (Hagans) in assists.
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Let the fun begin. Or not.
“I’m not sure how much he’ll guard Tremont,” Calipari said of Hagans. “We may do some different stuff. But they may go head to head some.”
Immanuel Quickley, who might get a turn defending Waters, suggested the point guard was key for LSU.
“From what I understand, he’s what makes them go,” Quickley said. “As a point guard, he facilitates their offense. He gets them going.”
LSU Coach Will Wade acknowledged the obvious: That a player who in league play leads LSU in scoring (20.0 points per game), steals (30), assists (68), minutes (33.6), three-pointers (22) and free throws shot and made (46 of 58) is important.
“He’s huge, he’s huge,” Wade said. “When he plays well, we’re obviously a much better team. It’s a lot tougher to beat us. He’s been playing at a very, very high level. … He’s the catalyst for what we’re doing.”
Waters, who is from New Haven, Conn., originally signed with Georgetown. He decommitted because of a coaching change. Another course correction came in mid-December of this season.
Wade removed Waters from starting lineup after a Dec. 12 game Houston. In that game, he made three of 13 shots (one of nine from three-point range), committed five turnovers and got credit for two assists.
“He was turning the ball over a lot early in games (and) committing fouls,” Wade said of the decision to bring Waters off the bench. “I thought it’d ease his mind a little bit if he was coming off the bench and seeing what was going on. … I thought it was just a nice change-up for him.”
Since the switch to a pseudo reserve role (it lasted two games and he entered the game by the first television timeout both times), Waters has had a better than two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio (88-43).
Waters, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, has drawn comparisons to a former diminutive Kentucky star, Tyler Ulis. Calipari found validity in this comparison.
“Yeah, he does control the game that way,” the UK coach said. “Coach on the floor.”
Wade accepted mentioning Waters and Ulis in the same sentence.
“Both smaller guards who’ve had success here in the SEC,” the LSU coach said. “We talk to Tremont (about) just be the best version of yourself. We just want him to be the best Tremont Waters he can be. I always tell him comparisons are the thief of joy. Whenever you try to compare to other folks, sometimes you take away from what you do.”
As Waters is LSU’s catalyst, Wade saw Hagans as a difference maker for Kentucky. That was on both ends of the court, the LSU coach said.
“He’s done a good job — a great job, actually — getting the ball in the paint and being able to force defenses into rotation,” Wade said of Hagans. “He’s very, very advanced in reading rotations. Your ‘bigs’ help up, he’s going to dump it down. You help in, he’s going to kick to the corner. … He rarely makes a wrong read on the rotation when he’s able to get in that paint.”
No. 19 LSU at No. 5 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: LSU 19-4 (9-1 SEC); UK 20-3 (9-1 SEC)
Series: UK leads 89-26
Last meeting: UK won 74-71 on Jan. 3, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1