John Clay

One position will be crucial to Kentucky’s postseason run. And the coaches are all over it.

John Calipari after win at Ole Miss: ‘It’s not easy’

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team’s 80-76 win at Ole Miss on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. UK improved to 14-3 in SEC play. The Wildcats finish the regular season on Saturday at home against Florida.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team’s 80-76 win at Ole Miss on Tuesday, March 5, 2019. UK improved to 14-3 in SEC play. The Wildcats finish the regular season on Saturday at home against Florida.

While his teammates were taking their halftime warm-up shots on Tuesday night, Ashton Hagans was receiving some one-on-one coaching.

First, Kentucky assistant basketball coach Tony Barbee was in the ear of the Wildcats’ point guard as Hagans stood listening outside the three-point line inside The Pavilion on the Ole Miss campus. No sooner had Barbee delivered his message, here came assistant Kenny Payne to have a word or two with Hagans.

You didn’t have to be eavesdropping to get the gist. The Cats trailed the Rebels 39-38. In 14 minutes on the floor, Hagans had scored two points, contributed just one assist and turned the basketball over twice. Known for his on-the-ball defense, Hagans had failed to come up with a steal. And Ole Miss’s guard tandem of Terence Davis (15) and Breein Tyree (eight) had combined for 23 points.

You know the rest of the story. Kentucky rallied for an 80-76 victory behind 22 points from Keldon Johnson and 20 from Tyler Herro. After failing to score in a first half in which he picked up two early fouls, PJ Washington scored 13 second-half points as John Calipari’s club improved to 14-3 in SEC play.

Hagans did his part, as well. After the halftime pep talks, the Georgia native scored the first basket of the second half, finishing a drive to the hoop. Less than 40 seconds later, he drained two free throws after being fouled. At the 13:15 mark, he completed an old-fashioned three-point play to pull the Cats into a 53-53 tie.

All told for the second half, Hagans scored eight points with one assist and just one turnover. And after shooting 50 percent the first half, the host Rebels dipped to 34.3 percent shooting the second half. Meanwhile, Kentucky shot 56 percent over the last 20 minutes.

Afterward, Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis rightfully gushed over Kentucky’s wings Johnson and Herro, who combined for 42 points. But as we head to the postseason — post Saturday’s regular-season finale against visiting Florida — surely just as important, if not more so, will be the play of the Cats’ point guard.

Think about it. The point guard has almost always been a barometer of Calipari’s Kentucky teams. Start with John Wall in 2010 right on through Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s star turn in 2018, with plenty more in between. And from Hagans’ eight steals against North Carolina at the Dec. 22 CBS Sports Classic, through his 23 points against his home-state school Georgia in Athens on Jan. 15, the rookie appeared to be developing into the kind of point guard that could take the Cats places.

By February, however, Hagans appeared to have hit the proverbial freshman wall. “Ashton the last three games has not played well at all,” said Calipari after his team’s 73-71 loss to LSU. “As a matter of fact, he’s not played well at all.”

To be fair, game after game Hagans has faced some of the best points guards not just in the SEC but in the country — LSU’s Tremont Waters, Auburn’s Jared Harper, Alabama’s Kira Lewis and Tennessee’s Jordan Bone, who scored 27 points in the Vols’ 71-52 spanking of the Cats last Saturday.

There have been some hard lessons. Hagans turned it over four times compared to just three assists in the Feb. 19 win at Missouri, then scored 14 points with five assists in UK’s 80-53 trouncing of Auburn at Rupp. He could not contain the speedy and experienced Bone in Knoxville, but was much more aggressive the second half at Ole Miss.

Saturday, he’ll be matched up against another excellent freshman point guard in Florida’s Andrew Nembhard. Next week comes the SEC Tournament where Hagans could get another crack at Bone or Waters or both. Then comes the Big Dance with even bigger challenges. No wonder a little extra coaching is in order.

Next game

Florida at No. 6 Kentucky

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

TV: CBS-27

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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