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Hagans Facing His Toughest Challenge

First photo by Mont Dawson
Second photo by Jeff Houchin
Michigan State guard Cassius Winston has been tabbed as the preseason national player of the year  by some after helping the Spartans reach the Final Four last year.

He’s so good that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has set a lofty goal for his senior — become the first player in college basketball history to have 2,000 points and 1,000 assists. Going into this season he has 1,411 career points to go with 714 assists, which is already fifth most in Big Ten history. Only four players in college basketball history have reached 1,000 assists — Bobby Hurley of Duke, Chris Corchiani of North Carolina State, Ed Cota of North Carolina and Jason Brickman of LIU Brooklyn. The most points any of them scored was 1,731 by Hurley.

That’s the kind of challenge Kentucky sophomore guard Ashton Hagans, the co-Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year last season, will face Tuesday night when UK opens the season against Michigan State in the Champions Classic in New York.

It’s a matchup that ESPN analyst Jay Bilas is anxious to see. 

“Winston is one is most accomplished guards in Michigan State history, and that’s saying something. He’s an amazing basketball player. You can talk about a lot of things that he’s not. He’s not big, he’s not athletic, but he knows how to play, and he figures out a way to win. He was the best player on the floor last year in the Elite 8 game against Duke. He was spectacular,” Bilas said.
“Ashton Hagans, I think, has improved from last year when he was excellent, but he’s as good of an on-ball defender as there is in college basketball. His ability to put pressure on Winston — I think one of the most important issues in the game is going to be ball security, and it has been an issue over the last several years with Michigan State, where although they like to get up and down the floor and score a lot in transition, they can be a little loose with the ball and turn it over.
“If Kentucky can turn Michigan State over, and that starts primarily with Hagans and his pressure on the ball, that can be a difference maker in the game.”

Bilas joked that you could ask the coach of any top 25 team if he would he like to have Winston on his team and each one would quickly say yes because of the value an experienced, talented point guard adds to any team.

“I don’t think you can overstate the importance of experience coming back. It’s vital,” Bilas said. “But you’d rather have super talent and experience, and super talent can overcome experience at times and has in the past, but I don’t see a lot of super talented teams out there that are capable of doing that. 

“Even Kentucky has got more players back this year than they normally have. So that’s a good thing for Kentucky, as well.”

Opening the season with a showdown between the nation’s top two teams in the AP preseason poll certainly will be a huge stage for any player. The nation will be studying Winston in his matchup with Hagans but Bilas doesn’t think the big stage will be any problem for Winston. 

“He’s done everything now. He’s proven — he’s led the league in assists. He’s been All-American. He’s been to the Final Four, he’s done all this stuff. I think focusing on being a champion and taking the steps necessary to be a national champion, I think that’ll be his focus,” Bilas said.

“I know he’s battled with Tom over having to be a better defender and all these kind of things. Like he’s been challenged throughout his time there, but he’s answered the call. He’s going to be one of the more beloved players that have played at Michigan State, and so Tuesday night will be a wonderful — it’ll just be a great celebration for the program.”

Hagans no doubt will relish the challenge of trying to contain Winston. Hagans had nine assists, seven points, five rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot in 25 minutes during the rout of Kentucky State Friday night in UK’s second exhibition game. 
Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus, though, says Hagans’ leadership skills on the court can be better. That was a point of emphasis for him going into this season after another UK assistant coach, Kenny Payne, noted there were times last year when Hagans would “pout” if things do not go well.

“I’m harder on him probably than most because he’s a guy that is doing everything that Cal is asking him to do. He’s playing hard, he’s putting pressure on the ball, he’s flying the ball up the floor,” Justus said.  “Now we have got to get him to be the same as Nate(Sestina) in that he’s grabbing people, he’s pulling people and taking them with him. He should be a guy that is challenging guys to play as hard as he plays, to be in the right places, to execute. 

“So you’re happy with his individual performance, but if we’re going to be who we hopefully can be, he’s going to be a big reason by grabbing other people and dragging other people. That’s who he’s going to be at the next level. He’s going to have to be a guy that makes people uncomfortable and then they get better because of guys like him.”

So pay attention not only to how Hagans matches up with Winston, but also how the sophomore interacts with teammates because win or lose Tuesday, Hagans obviously could be the biggest key to UK’s March success this year if Justus is right.

Larry Vaught
Larry Vaught is a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award and has covered University of Kentucky sports since 1975. Larry now has a syndicated UK sports column appearing in 34 newspapers across the state as well as, and Larry also joins Mark Buerger and Anthony White on WLAP Sunday Morning Sports each week in Lexington as well as appearing each Tuesday with Tom Leach on The Leach Report.

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