Last December, it was ‘The Ashton Hagans Game’ in a Kentucky victory over North Carolina that signified the turning point of the Cats’ season that saw them fall one game short of making the Final Four for the fifth time under John Calipari.
As good as Hagans was on that day and many days to follow after, it was his Elite Eight performance that put the current events in motion. Hagans played what was likely the worst game of his Kentucky career in the loss to Auburn last March, but it left the sophomore guard wanting more out of his experience in Lexington.
As we fast forward to the current day, Hagans is in a similar spot to the beginning of the season, coming off a six-turnover performance in Saturday’s loss on the road to the same Auburn bunch where he fouled out in the 75-66 defeat.
“(He) struggled,” Calipari said after Saturday’s loss when asked about Hagans’ performance. “It’s hard because Tyrese (Maxey) isn’t ready to run a team yet. Possessions matter. They really do ... and when you’re not in the mindset, you’re just playing and exchanging baskets. You have a lead and all of a sudden, you’re on the road and you’re controlling the game, and you’re just giving them ... what’s the problem? But, he’s learning. We need guys to play well.”
One of those guys is obviously Hagans, who is basically Kentucky’s lone lead guard this season. Kentucky doesn’t have the point guard depth for Hagans to battle foul trouble and play just 20 minutes like he did against the Tigers. In three of Kentucky’s five losses to Evansville, South Carolina and Auburn, Hagans registered just 21 points on 23 total shot attempts with 13 assists and 15 turnovers.
In Hagans’ defense, it’s tough when shooters are flailing like they’re being tickled in mid-air and getting those calls while you’re on the road.
So, this is why Ashton Hagans only played 20 minutes on Saturday?— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) February 4, 2020
Because of bullshit officiating like this?
(Yes, I'm writing about him right now and yes, I'm laughing because this is a joke of a call.) pic.twitter.com/JqXD2BPCsd
That’s what helps magnify his value to this current Kentucky roster. He runs the show on both ends and with the homestretch for the Cats in sight, Hagans can really turn heads with the SEC regular season crown and the tournament’s top seed hanging in the balance.
He’s already (likely) the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award frontrunner just based off last season and his reputation alone, but with 10 games left, can he join Nick Richards in the SEC Player of the Year award race and potentially sweep both awards like Tyler Ulis did during the 2015-16 season?
Why Hagans can’t potentially join the race here late in the year
What hurts Hagans’ double award case right off the bat is his basic numbers. Although he’s averaging 5.1 points per game more than last season (12.8 to 7.7 PPG), a 5.1 percent improvement at the free-throw line (81.2 to 76.1 percent on 5.6 attempts per game), while shooting 4.2 percent better from long range (31.7 to 27.5 percent) to go along with his 2.1 steals per game (tied for first in the SEC), he hasn’t had the stat-filling performances that someone like Richards has had throughout the season.
Also, and this is admittedly probably just a personal worry even with 10 regular season games left plus the conference tourney, but Hagans appears to be fading a bit in terms of his production.
Hagans in the 12 games before SEC play started: 13.4 points (slash line of 47.2/30.8/84.1 percent), 3.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 3.2 turnovers and two personal fouls per game.
Hagans in eight conference games plus Texas Tech: 11.9 points (slash line of 37.5/33.3/77.8 percent), 4.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 3.9 turnovers and 3.7 personal fouls per game.
The quality of opponents and their playing styles should definitely be considered (at Arkansas, at Texas Tech and at Auburn in back-to-back weekends), but since Hagans dropped 23 points, five rebounds and nine assists against his home-state Georgia Bulldogs on the road, Hagans has scored 23 total points over the last three games with seven rebounds and 16 assists, but registered 15 turnovers.
In all three games, Hagans picked up at least three fouls (which does come with the territory of being such a pest defensively each game out). You can also see the whistle in the Auburn game above was not kind to Hagans or much of the Kentucky roster for that matter, too.
Why Hagans still has a shot at winning both awards
Quick, without looking: guess who leads the SEC in assists per game and is also tied with Missouri’s Dru Smith for the league lead in steals per game?
Ashton Hagans with the HUGE strip. pic.twitter.com/x2m5IP8l1S— Not Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton2) January 26, 2020
You probably already know that it’s Ashton Hagans, but did you know that only Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton (6.8 assists and 2.5 steals per game) is the only other player that is accomplishing what Hagans is doing among the Power 5 conference (ACC, B1G, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC) schools?
Haliburton’s in the Big XII Player of the Year award discussion (and the 2020 NBA Draft lottery discussions) and his team is three games under .500 through 21 games (9-12) while losing six of their first eight conference matchups this year. Hagans plays on a better team that’s competing for a conference crown, but that should give some context as to how Hagans has a shot at some postseason honors.
Ashton Hagans to Nick Richards. Again. pic.twitter.com/4edYwZCEWH— Not Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton2) January 30, 2020
Hagans has a month-plus to play his way fully into the conversation and as the Big Blue Nation knows good and well, a lot can happen in a time frame like that, good or bad. He gets a rematch with Auburn — a team that’s frustrated him a lot in his time with Kentucky — two matchups with Tennessee, two games with Florida and SEC Player of the Year candidate (and former Kentucky transfer target) Kerry Blackshear Jr., and a rugged trip to No. 18 LSU on Feb. 18.
There’s plenty of opportunities for Hagans to get his production back on track and spark a late-season run for Kentucky that could have them looking dangerous when the calendar turns to the month of March. The Cats need Nick Richards, but in order to win the big games and trophies, they’ll need Ashton Hagans at his very best.