With his program’s dependence on one-and-done players, Kentucky Coach John Calipari does not often talk about freshmen hitting the metaphorical wall deep in a season. But he did Friday when asked about guard Ashton Hagans.
“Ashton the last three games has not played well,” Calipari said. “As a matter of fact, he’s not played well at all.”
When asked why Hagans had not played well, Calipari said, “He’s a freshman. (He) hit a little bit of a wall.”
UK needs the pre-wall Hagans against Tennessee, Calipari said. The Vols’ point guard, junior Jordan Bone, ranks 11th in the country in assists (6.5 per game) and 15th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“So this is a game where we’re going to need him to get back where he was 10 days ago, 12 days ago. Where everybody was talking about him being the best on-ball defender in the country. A difference-maker. A creator.”
Calipari suggested that playing against inspired opponents every game makes the metaphorical wall more formidable.
“You kind of get numb to it,” he said. “And all of a sudden, you’re not playing with the energy, the focus you need to play with. He’s had a heck of a year. Just had a bad week and a half.”
A loss would drop Kentucky three games behind Tennessee with six games left in the Southeastern Conference regular-season race.
UK regularly touts its 48 SEC regular-season championships. A note trumpeting those titles in the information package distributed to the media Friday was headlined “S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!”
But don’t let that fool you. When asked what the SEC race meant, Calipari said, “To me, nothing.”
Calipari said UK stressed improving its NCAA Tournament seed, not winning the SEC’s regular-season nor tournament titles.
Calipari and Keldon Johnson did not dismiss the notion of Kentucky suffering from a hangover after losing on a controversial tip-in against LSU on Tuesday.
“I don’t know,” Calipari said. “I hope so. I mean, I have. Usually if I move on, they’ll move on. And I’ll grieve for 24 hours. Then I’ll move on.”
Johnson suggested UK had little time for depression.
“We’ve got to get over it pretty quick,” he said. “We’ve got another big game coming up. That’s every game in the SEC.”
Tennessee has had to deal with an unusual issue: basketball bouquets thrown their way all season.
“They’re not walking underneath championship banners every day,” Barnes said of his players. “To have a spotlight put on them, I think they’ve done an unbelievable job. I do. … It’s been a new experience for them. They’ve learned.
“I think they have a great appreciation for those teams that stay there year in and year out. We’ve understood that (opponents) go at it like they never have gone at it before.”
UK vs. No. 1
This will be the fifth time a No. 1 team has played Kentucky in Rupp Arena. UK defeated Florida 70-55 on Feb. 4, 2003, and Indiana 69-58 on Dec. 15, 1979.
UK lost to No. 1 North Carolina 86-77 on Dec. 1, 2007, and to No. 1 Florida 64-61 on Feb. 10, 2007.
For the coaches, it will be a friendly competition.
When asked at SEC Media Day about his relationship with Barnes, Calipari said, “I love Rick like a brother.”
Then with his sense of humor kicking in, Calipari added, “Let me say this: an older brother. But he’s helped me throughout my career.”
Calipari, who turned 60 last Sunday, recalled one of his UMass teams playing poor defense. He called Barnes for advice. Barnes, 64, suggested Calipari emphasize a few things rather than overload the players with demands.
“A great guy,” Calipari said of Barnes. “A good human being.”
For his part, Barnes said he first met Calipari in the mid- to late-1970s.
“He’s a person I trust,” the UT coach said. “And he’s a guy, and I really believe this, if I need something, I call him and ask him for it. He wouldn’t ask me why or what. He would say here it is.”
Tennessee has been behind by 10 or more points once this season. The Vols trailed West Virginia by 12 in the first half before winning 83-66. … Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and sideline reporter Maria Taylor will call the game for ESPN.