Ashton Hagans is ready for round two in Madison Square Garden, and this time he’ll be facing off against the only consensus selection for the AP’s pre-season All-American list. Michigan State’s senior guard Cassius Winston will pose a major threat to Kentucky Tuesday night, and it’ll be Hagans’ job to stop it. If you ask his teammate and fellow MSG “returner” Immanuel Quickley, it’s a task Hagans will be ready for.
“Ashton is the type of guy to never back down from any challenge,” Quickley told reporters Sunday afternoon. “We know how good Cassius is and we know how good Michigan State is – they’re No. 1 for a reason. As a team, and I’m sure Ashton can say this for himself, but we see this as an opportunity to get better.”
Hagans knows what’s on his shoulders, but he also understands he doesn’t bear the weight alone.
“Going out there with a group of guys like these, you know they’re going to have my back for all 40 [minutes],” Hagans said. “I know there’s not too much I’ll have to worry about. If I’m not doing too good with the matchup, I know somebody else can go out there and check him. All I can say is I know I’m going to be out there helping.”
If history is any indication, Hagans will be helping a lot. The matchup between Hagans and Winston is being compared to that of Hagans and North Carolina’s Colby White from last season’s December matchup. In Chicago, Hagans only finished with seven points, but he contributed a personal-best eight steals and helped shut down one of the nation’s best guards. White finished with just eight points; he was 3-10 from the field and 1-4 from the three-point line. Kentucky won that game by a final score of 80-72 over the Tar Heels.
Hagans sees the similarities in the matchups.
“Coby was just fast. They are probably the same size. Same game plan. Go out there and stick to the game plan; go out there and do what we do best.”
Same game plan? John Calipari couldn’t disagree more.
“Totally different situation. Coby was a freshman; this kid [Winston] is a senior,” Calipari said. “I don’t even want [Hagans] thinking about how I played in that game because he would speed White up. He’s not speeding this kid up. This kid is going to play at the pace he wants to play. Now, he’ll play fast but only because he wants to play fast. And when he wants to play slow, he’s going to play slow.”
How do you stop that?
“It’s a different deal. It’s more of, I’ve gotta make this difficult,” Calipari said. “And if he’s making baskets, I can’t change how I’m doing this. Just keep playing and hope he starts missing some… What you’re trying to do is if the kid gets 25 [points], just make them a hard 25.
Calipari and Hagans do agree on one thing – Kentucky can’t afford to lose its point guard to two early fouls. Hagans listed picking up quick fouls, as well as rushing his game and pressing too hard, as things he’s working to avoid during Tuesday’s outing. Calipari said the same.
“He’s gotta be disciplined. It’s going to be, you know, it’s November. How disciplined can he be?” Coach Cal said. “I just don’t want him to get two quick ones, so now we’re playing short-handed because I won’t play him in the first half with two fouls.”
“The team is as good as its best player, and he’s the best player on that team,” Hagans said. “For us to do what we do, we’ll have to try to take that away… He’s a good player who makes good plays. He’s going to go out there fighting, and so are we.”