By LARRY VAUGHT
Over his first 18 games of the season, Kentucky sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans was averaging 13.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game while making 3.2 turnovers per game. He had 17 straight games with five or more assists and scored in double digits five straight times.
He was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award given to the nation’s point guard — and was playing like he could win the award. This week he was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.
However, Hagans play has dropped significantly the last 10 games even though UK has won seven straight games. He’s averaging 11.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game but has scored in double figures just five times. His turnovers have soared — he had five more in Tuesday’s win at Texas A&M and has 41 turnovers in the last 10 games.
So what has happened? Has the wear and tear of the season taken a toll on Hagans, who is one player who always puts his body on the line game after game?
“I think so. I think he had an injury a little while back where we had to limit his practices where he at times didn’t practice,” Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said before the Texas A&M game.
However, Payne was also realistic.
“But no excuses here. Ashton has to play better. He has to eliminate the – and I hate to say it – unforced turnovers because they’re not forced. They’re a-lack-of-concentration, a-lack-of-discipline turnovers,”Payne said.
Unfortunately, Hagans did what Payne said he should not do against A&M when three of his turnovers came on offensive fouls that easily could have been avoided. Payne noted that there seems to be a “lull” in UK’s offense and focus for six or seven minutes almost every game. Turnovers certainly add to that.
“There’s a lull in what we’re doing on the court. We have to clean that up, and some of that starts with turnovers – unforced,” Payne said.
Hagans is also shooting only 28.1 percent from 3-point range after hitting 27.5 percent last season. Numbers don’t lie after almost two years and defenses have adjusted to play Hagans for the pass, not the 3-point shot.
“What has happened the last couple games is when he drives, before the defenses were collapsing and he could make passes. Now the defenses are spreading out and going to shooters and he’s having to make the read of, ‘Do I shoot it or do I throw the lob?’” Payne said.
“Well, they may take Nick Richards away. The lob is not there. He has to be under control and reading, I have a shot. If I miss it, I miss it. I just can’t miss them all, as Cal would say. But I’ve got to put it on the rim and allow our bigs to rebound it.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari on his weekly radio show Wednesday again emphasized he was not worried about Hagans’ play.
“He’s going to be fine and we’re going to sit down and really do some tape study and get him in a – I need him to be aggressive, to be honest. I want him to run and fly up the court and create shots for his teammates but he’s had – like two of the plays (turnovers) were charges (against Texas A&M),” Calipari said.
“You kind of want to take those out of the equation. Know what I’m saying? When they’re charges, that’s not in my mind like a turnover. Sometimes those charges are flops. They just run in there and flop it. Well, that’s not a real turnover, so let’s not count those. But the ones where you have a guy wide open in the corner and you try to throw something crosscourt or a lob, those are the ones we’ve got to eliminate.”