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Both sides of John Calipari’s thoughts about Ashton Hagans are correct

Kentucky’s head coach is right. His floor general is trying to make harder plays than he needs to. But, he’s also right in saying Kentucky needs him on the floor.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Tennessee
Ashton Hagans has had his struggles in the dog days of the regular season again, but John Calipari’s right. For Kentucky to win and win a lot over the next month-plus, they need Ashton Hagans.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

After Kentucky’s 77-64 victory over Tennessee on Saturday afternoon, coach John Calipari was asked about the issues over the last few games regarding Ashton Hagans.

Hagans, who scored 10 points to go along with four rebounds and three assists, also committed five or more turnovers in a game for the seventh time this season. The sophomore point guard’s turnover count (5) was almost as many as the entire Tennessee roster (8) on Saturday.

Here’s the exchange from Calipari’s post-game press conference on Hagans:

Question: The decision-making stuff seems to be a little more of a trend now lately with Ashton. What do you make of all these turnovers and some of the disjointed offense that we’re seeing?

Calipari: Well, again ... sometimes, he’s trying to make a harder play than he needs to make. The play that he walked, Nate (Sestina) was flying. All he had to do was look and throw a bounce pass to Nate and he shot a layup. Instead, he went like this [head shake] and wanted to lay one off to him and they call a walk. You didn’t need to do that. Just make the easiest play.

He’s so physical. He defends so well. He rebounds. Now we gotta get this decision-making to where he’s not turning it over. And, we need him in the game.

There’s prime examples of what makes Hagans so vital to Kentucky’s success and there’s other examples of what makes Hagans a liability as a floor general at times.

The good:

Kentucky’s start wasn’t as fast as the one they had in the win over Mississippi State at home earlier in the week, but they only trailed for 21 seconds on Saturday.

In the first two minutes, Hagans had the ball on the right wing and shielded the ball away from his defender well enough that he was able to get penetration and make a proper read to Nick Richards before Richards got the ball knocked away from him.

I loved this read from Hagans. He gets around the screen from EJ Montgomery and catches Immanuel Quickley’s defender watching the ball with his back turned to Quickley. Hagans shades Quickley to the corner with the bounce pass and gets Quickley an open look that he splashes home for 3.

The ball stopped for a second with Richards, but once Richards kicked out to Quickley in the left corner, it got all the way back around the perimeter to Hagans, who utilized a great head fake, and got the bucket off an easy goaltending call.

Hagans made the right play here with a tough cross-court pass to the left wing to Saturday’s hero Johnny Juzang, but instead of putting up a shot from 3 here, Juzang tried to put the ball on the deck to drive and got called for a travel.

Hagans made a handful of fantastic passes on Saturday and this was one of them. He puts this pass in a spot where only Nick Richards could catch it and it leads to a bucket, plus the foul. He’ll make some questionable decisions (that we’ll discuss in a few), but these are types of plays he can make, too.

I noted this play because it would’ve been extremely easy for Hagans to try and feed Richards off the screen on his roll, but when Hagans got doubled, he made a simple pass to Quickley — who was absolutely on fire at this point in the game — who then drew the foul and got to the line. Sometimes, not trying to make a play is the right play.

The bad:

These are the silly type of turnovers that Hagans has to cut out of his game. He not only dribbled into tight headquarters on the baseline, he throws a sloppy pass right to Quickley’s defender, who was facing him on his drive.

This is a play where Hagans has to be more aggressive. He uses another solid head fake from beyond the 3-point line and gets good penetration, but instead of using his left hand for a potential finish, he tries to force a tough pass down to Montgomery, who couldn’t handle the ball and resulted in a turnover.

I don’t know if you’re thinking the same thing I thought on this possession with Hagans, so to clarify for everyone: why did Hagans pick up his dribble on the wing and turn around instead of just attacking the basket here? There’s times to pull the ball back out for a better look and there’s times to attack. This was a chance to attack the rack.

Here’s a possession where Hagans did up his aggressiveness and attacked the rim, but it ended up being a poor shot not because it was contested well, but because Hagans basically avoided all of the contact and made a difficult shot even harder on himself by shying from the contact and potentially drawing a foul.

Once again, Hagans attacks the lane and looks to score at the rim, but when he drove and forced the defense to collapse, he forced up a bad shot instead of kicking out to the nearby Keion Brooks Jr., who likely could’ve shot a simple pull-up jumper or continued to curl into the lane and shoot a floater.

I’m all for rewarding the roller in pick-and-roll looks, but Hagans had no chance to complete this pass to Nate Sestina and to be fair, the recovery defense on Sestina was excellent. Still, the pass was never open because 1) the defense was good and 2) Sestina’s not the quickest of the Kentucky bigs.

No point guard in America is going to be perfect for 40 minutes, but the Cats do need Hagans to find that groove in the last stretch of the regular season.

Sure, he’s played 767 minutes in 23 games already this season, second-most on the team to Tyrese Maxey’s 771 minutes played, which could mean fatigue’s a bit of a factor. Hagans did hit a wall around this time a season ago, but the Kentucky coaching staff refuses to use that as an excuse for Hagans’ recent play.

But, for the Cats to make a run not only at the SEC crown, Hagans is going to have to find that swagger and more important, the consistent play that made him a rising star last season and earlier this season.