By LARRY VAUGHT
Remember how disruptive Tyler Ulis was when he was Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year at Kentuck? Not only did he make steals, but he kept teams from getting into offense and influenced so many things that statistics did not always show.
Freshman Ashton Hagans is having the same kind of impact for Kentucky this year. In the last four games, he’s had 18 steals. Overall, he has 29 steals in 14 games. Ulis had 51 steals in 35 games during the 2015-16 season but the top mark for steals in a single season at UK belongs to Rajon Rondo with 87 while rounding out the top five are Wayne Turner 79, Rodrick Rhodes 76, Cliff Hawkins 74 and Kyle Macy 69.
Hagans had 18 points on 10-for-11 shooting at the foul line and 4-for-6 from the field in Tuesday’s 85-74 win over Texas A&M. He also had five assists to go with the five steals he had.
“We want to make him shoot perimeter shots, and to his credit he does a great job at taking up space,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “Defensively, he’s probably the best defensive point guard that we’ve played against this year. He’s just so active on the ball and he does a good job running the offense. We wanted him to go under ball screens and he did a great job at making good decisions and knowing where to attack and all of that too.”
Here’s the surprising part from Kennedy.
“Hagans is capable of taking over of the game offensively. In the second half when we were making a run and scoring, we had a hard time guarding him. He did just what they wanted him to do and he did a great job of scoring and making plays for other people,” Kennedy said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari pointed out what a “difference” Hagans was making — on both ends.
“People act like he can’t shoot. He can shoot,” Calipari said. “But his game has always been getting at the rim and the way he defends and that’s what he did.”
Calipari said Hagans anticipates what’s going to happen on defense rather than waiting for things to develop
“He does get his hands on balls,” Calipari said. “We have guys that when their man catches it, they start playing. He’s playing before his man catches it, and if he sees an opportunity to go after a ball, he does.
“If he sees an opportunity to deny his man the ball, his man doesn’t get the ball. If some other guys deny the ball, at some point, they will let go and the guy will coach it. He just says, you are not catching it until they throw it to somebody else.”
Earlier in the season Hagans often got lost when he was defending off the ball. He’s corrected that but teammates have not.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys off the ball that we’re working with. And again, it’s high school. The ball’s passed and you’re not guarding the ball, you stop. You rest. You breathe,” Calipari said. “You’re waiting to get shots down the other end. If I can’t get a shot, I’ll pass it to you. That’s how they all come here. That’s what we have to break down.”