Honestly, it’s still pretty wild to remember that this season was supposed to be Ashton Hagans’ freshman season in Lexington, but he enrolled early and helped Kentucky turn the season around around Christmas a year ago, resulting in the Cats coming with in a couple possessions of the Final Four.
Hagans wasted little time making it clear he was coming back to school for a sophomore season, along with EJ Montgomery and Immanuel Quickley. Throw in a rare junior in John Calipari’s rotation in Nick Richards and another solid recruiting class and suddenly, Kentucky looked like one of the title favorites again.
However, things didn’t exactly go according to plan, as Kentucky suffered arguably the worst loss in program history to Evansville a week after beating No. 2 Michigan State to open the 2019-20 season in New York and then lost two games out in Las Vegas a few days before Christmas, leaving more questions about this team than answers.
As the year went along, Hagans became one of those question marks. His performance continued to dip as the season went along, along with avoiding a serious lower leg injury right after the turn of the new year in a win over Missouri and not missing any time after suffering a thigh contusion in the win at LSU over a month later.
Although Kentucky continued to win through Hagans’ shooting woes and turnover issues, there was one consistent belief as Kentucky entered the SEC Tournament as the No. 1 seed with a 16-2 mark since Jan. 1: the Cats aren’t winning trophies in March without Hagans.
Like some relationships, Hagans became complicated. From Jan. 4 until the end of the season, the sophomore guard had six games with 5+ turnovers. He missed the crazy season finale in the 18-point comeback against Florida due to “personal reasons”, potentially stemming from an argument with Calipari earlier in the week in a home loss to Tennessee.
But, he still finished the season as a finalist for the national defensive player of the year award with 58 steals and 191 assists, including 14 game with 7+ assists.
Like medical workers in the present day, Hagans was (and was going to be) essential to any of Kentucky’s near-future success.
With that said, here’s a few fun moments from Hagans’ 2019-20 season.
Hagans helps Kentucky avoid a second consecutive embarrassing upset
The current worldwide pandemic basically makes you forget that there were games before 2020 because the year has already felt about 50 years long already.
But, Kentucky had to try and bounce back from that humiliating defeat to Evansville at home six days later against Utah Valley back on Nov. 18, coached by former NBA champion Mark Madsen.
It’s a good thing that Kentucky got the good version of Hagans because without him, back-to-back losses certainly was in play, as UV cut Kentucky lead to just one (68-67) with 3:26 to play after trailing by as many as 16 points early in the second half.
Hagans scored a season-high 26 points on 7-of-14 shooting (12-of-12 from the free-throw line) with five rebounds and six assists in the 82-74 victory for the Cats.
Hagans torments his home state for the second straight year
If Ashton Hagans played against the Georgia Bulldogs for 40 games, Kentucky might be able to give John Calipari one of his main goals in coaching and make the Cats the first team in college basketball history to finish a season unbeaten at 40-0.
In three games against his home-state Bulldogs (two wins this season), Hagans’ numbers look like this: 59 points, 12 rebounds, 18 assists, 12 steals and two blocks in three Kentucky victories.
This season, Hagans struggled in the first matchup, shooting 4-of-12 from the field, but racking up four steals in Kentucky’s come-from-behind 78-69 win.
In the rematch, the Cartersville, Georgia native (and former Georgia commit) was superb, tallying 23 points, five rebounds, nine assists and four steals in the Cats’ 89-79 victory over potential No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards and the Dawgs to stick that dagger into Georgia fans just a little deeper.
Hagans ices Kentucky’s 10th win in the last 12 games against Louisville
A year prior against their hated rivals to the west, Hagans may not have won the pretty championship belt handed out to the player of the game in the battle for braggin’ rights in the Bluegrass (that honor went to everyone’s favorite bucket, Tyler Herro), he was nothing short of vital in Kentucky’s 71-58 victory on both ends of the floor.
This year, Hagans did his thing against the Cardinals, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds, registering eight assists with two steals, the latter of the two being the most memorable, sealing Kentucky’s 78-70 overtime win and sending Rupp into a frenzy.
Hagans may have struggled down the stretch of the season, but in the early portion of the campaign, he looked like a player that was going to have a full trophy case at season’s end. If he returns for a second time and a junior season, he’s going to be a massive jolt in the arm for the 2020-21 Wildcats.
The question is, whether he goes pro or not, can he maintain some consistency, finish around the rim more efficiently and provide his team moments like this?
Hagans’ defense helps Kentucky survive Lubbock
When you look at Hagans’ numbers from this wild 76-74 overtime thriller that helped Kentucky end Texas Tech’s 54-game home non-conference winning streak back on Jan. 25, they won’t wow you.
Hagans hit just two of his six shot attempts with seven assists, three steals and four turnovers, but the fact that he played a team-high 43 minutes and was making the plays defensively that he did to help the Cats survive a brutal road test is just absurd looking back on it.
Whether it was hustling back to break up a lob at the rim in regulation or his strip of Davide Moretti’s drive to seal the victory, Hagans’ defensive efforts were noticeable for all to see on this night.