After a practice last week, Kentucky players watched a movie. Ashton Hagans was the leading man. John Calipari wore multiple hats: Producer, director, narrator and film critic.
The Wildcats were the good guys. North Carolina was the antagonist. This holiday film premiered at the United Center in Chicago.
Again and again, Hagans stole the ball. In all, his eight steals tied a program record.
After each theft, Calipari hit the pause button.
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“He was, like, ‘Who is that?’” Hagans said Calipari questioned the players. “And they say, ‘That was Ashton with the braces.’ Something like that.”
Hagans, who recently had his braces removed, sat in the back of the room.
“I couldn’t do nothing because it’s all on tape,” he said. “I’m just sitting back there smiling because I knew I was messing up.”
As Calipari said a few days later, the purpose of the film session was to remind the team that Hagans was not playing this well in recent games. The UK coach told reporters that Hagans had hit the metaphorical freshman wall.
On Monday, Hagans did not dispute that interpretation.
“He said I wasn’t pressuring the ball like I used to …,” Hagans said in reference to Calipari. “Everybody needs to start picking me up and talking to me more and then just bringing the energy back in me. (Then) I’ll be the same dude that I was.”
That dude, the one that spearheads Kentucky’s defense with on-ball aggression, is key to the team reaching its ultimate goals, said associate coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for Calipari at Monday’s news conference.
“We’re asking him to hold your own, if not dominate your position,” Payne said. “It’s not easy against the best players in this conference.”
Last week Hagans went against two players contending for all-Southeastern Conference honors: Jordan Bone of Tennessee and Tremont Waters of LSU. Earlier in February, he had to deal with Florida’s Andrew Nembhard, whose inclusion on an all-league freshman team would surprise no one, and Mississippi State veteran Lamar Peters.
“He’s learning on the go,” Payne said of Hagans. “He’s getting better. He’s vital to the success of this team. We can’t allow him to come at his pace. His pace means we get beat in a NCAA Tournament game. … He had to be 100-percent on and focused and disciplined and energetic.
“Because he’s vital.”
With Kentucky’s annual dependence on one-and-done players, it can be easy to forget that in many cases it is freshmen dealing with what Payne called the “emotional roller-coaster” that is a college basketball season.
“There are times that he pouts,” Payne said of Hagans. “We have to address it. There are times he is immature. We have to address it. But there are times when he’s locked in, and that’s been a big difference in our team.”
Hagans, who said Payne tipped him off about telling reporters about the pouting, acknowledged that part of the adjustment was getting used to a more physically and mentally basketball lifestyle.
“Coming from a small town (Cartersville, Ga.), there was, like, no real good coaches,” he said.
Hagans then mentioned how conducting individual player workouts transforms the smiling, engaging Payne that speaks to the media into an unforgiving taskmaster.
“‘K.P.’ is a different breed when he’s working you out,” Hagans said. “He wants nothing but the best for you.”
When asked what he meant by different breed, Hagans said, “His workouts are just like Cal acts in a regular game. He’s always yelling.”
Meanwhile, the maturation process continues.
“My parents are, like, six hours away,” Hagans said. “So they’re not here. I’ve got to keep my room clean. Got to get up on time. Get to where I’ve got to go. As it goes along, just mature as you go along.”
Kentucky’s opponent Tuesday night seems the ideal movie villain for Hagans to defeat. Missouri committed 25 turnovers in its 75-65 loss to Ole Miss last weekend. Ole Miss scored 32 points off those turnovers.
In SEC play, Missouri has committed 44 more turnovers than its opponents and ranks last in assist-to-turnover ratio (10.9 assists and 15.5 turnovers per league game).
Hagans soft-pedaled this chance for a star turn.
“Really just stay active and be alert on the defensive end,” he said of how he envisioned his next performance. “Just keep playing the game I’ve been playing and see what can on from there.”
No. 4 Kentucky at Missouri
When: 9 p.m.
Records: UK 21-4 (10-2 SEC); Missouri 12-12 (3-9 SEC)
Series: UK leads 11-1
Last meeting: UK won 87-66 in Rupp Arena on Feb. 24, 2018
Radio: WBUL-98.1; WLAP-630