By LARRY VAUGHT
Ashton Hagans is clearly the player that Kentucky coach John Calipari wants running his team.
How often have you heard Calipari say he thinks Hagans in the best point guard in the country or the nation’s best defensive guard.
Yet as good as Hagans can be and as much as he has been praised by Calipari, I think it’s time to be a little more realistic.
Take Saturday’s 77-64 win at Tennessee. Hagans had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists. Solid numbers, right? But he also had five turnovers, including three early in the game, and missed six of eight shots from the field, including a couple of shots driving to the basket he had no chance of making, in 36 minutes.
For the season, he’s averaging 12.3 points per game, shooting 41.8 percent from the field (only 30.2 percent from 3-point range) and has 156 assists and 47 steals, both team highs in 23 games. However, he also has 156 turnovers — one about every five minutes he plays.
In 10 SEC games, he has 38 turnovers and 61 assists. He’s had five or more turnovers in five of those games, including both losses. He was also 4-for-15 from the field in the two SEC losses as opposing coaches at times just back off him and give him outside shots that Calipari continues to insist he can shoot and make.
“Sometimes he is trying to make a harder play than he needs to make,” Calipari said after Saturday’s win at Tennessee. “The play that he walked, Nate (Sestina) was flying, all he had to do was look and throw a bounce pass to Nate, instead he went like this and wanted to lay one off to him and they called a walk. He didn’t need to do that, just make the easiest play.
“He’s so physical, he defends so well, he rebounds. Now we just have to get his decision making to where he’s not just turning it over, and we need him in the game. We ran a play and Tyrese just couldn’t lob it and he couldn’t make a play that you know Ashton is going to make, and the ball gets tipped.”
Maxey was in foul trouble the second half after scoring 11 points and finished with 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting (0-for-3 from 3-point range), five rebounds, four assists and two turnovers in 31 minutes. For the season he’s averaging 13.4 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 42.8 percent from the field and 29 percent from 3-point range. He has 69 assists, 18 steals and 52 turnovers — or one turnover per every 15 minutes played.
Calipari recently noted how Maxey was not ready to run the team and that his decision-making was prone to lapses. After Saturday’s win the coach said he did not get “the energy and effort” out of Maxey who drew a lot of praise during the game from CBS-TV analyst Bill Raftery.
Hagans had just four points and one rebound in the first half when he had four turnovers and missed four of five shots.
“Ashton didn’t play great in the first half, but it doesn’t matter,” Calipari said. “The biggest rebound of the game is that rebound that he grabbed in traffic, which is what he always does. No one else on our team can get that ball except him, and he grabbed it.”
Myself I thought maybe the rebound Johnny Juzang grabbed off a Nick Richards missed free throw and turned into a layup late in the game was the biggest rebound.
Maybe Calipari just knows Hagans needs the positive reinforcement where Maxey needs criticism to push him more. Or maybe Calipari just sees an even higher ceiling for Maxey.
Whatever the reasons, the coach seems more prone to dwell on Maxey’s fault than he does mistakes Hagans might make.
Both are terrific players in their own way and for Kentucky to be a factor in March Madness both have to play well. Both have shown they can play well. It’s just that I don’t think Hagans plays consistently well enough to be considered the nation’s best point guard.