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Jamie Vaught: UK sophomores Hagans, Howard will be key to success of respective teams this season


Ashton Hagans, in my opinion, is the most important player for the Kentucky Wildcats this season.

As a valuable point guard on the hardwood floor, Hagans runs the show. The 6-3 sophomore from Cartersville, Georgia, will keep things going smoothly with his leadership.

And Hagans sure can play sticky defense, creating chaos on his opponent. Last season, he was named SEC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year and was a Naismith National Defensive Player of the Year semifinalist. Hagans, who started 30 of 37 games, also led Kentucky in assists and steals.

Ashton Hagans

In an SEC Tournament semifinal loss to No. 8 Tennessee, Hagans had a double-double with 10 points and a career-high 12 assists, which tied for the most in SEC tourney history. Hagans, who scored in double figures in 13 games, averaged 7.7 points per game.

For Hagans, the 2019-20 college basketball yearbooks are also predicting another banner year. Hagans is Athlon Sports’ preseason choice as the conference’s best defensive player. Street & Smith’s has Hagans and UK freshman Tyrese Maxey on its SEC’s All-Defense team.

Kentucky coach John Calipari is excited about Hagans’ improvement over last season.

“He’s even more confident defensively than he was a year ago,” Calipari said recently during UK’s annual Media Day festivities. “But I’m going to be honest with you, Tyrese is right there. You got two guys that can really guard the ball and really be long and really still block shots and physically sustain.”

After a steep learning curve as a Wildcat rookie last season, Hagans has become a different player. He now knows what is expected in his second year as a member of the high-profile program. That first-year anxiety is gone.

“I mean he’s got a different way about him,” said Calipari of Hagans. “You can just see it.”

On defining leadership, Hagans said, “Being vocal, showing the guys the right way. There is no wrong way to go out here on the court. Cal is going to let you mess up, you just have to show him that you’re out here fighting and that you want it more than the next person.”

Hagans has plenty of talented competition like Maxey, sophomore Immanuel Quickley and others in team practices to make him a better player.

“He’s good,” Hagans said of Maxey. “He’s getting me better, I’m getting him better. I know we’re going to go out there and compete. I, Tyrese, Quickley and Johnny (Juzang) go at it and argue every day in practice. We’re just trying to make each other better and get ready for the season.”

Hagans was asked about what the team can improve in practice.

“Talking more while being aggressive,” said Hagans. “We’re working hard on these things right now. It will all come together. The season is right around the corner. We’re getting ready.”

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Like Hagans, UK sophomore Rhyne Howard is the most important player for Coach Matthew Mitchell’s squad.

Rhyne Howard

The 6-2 guard from Cleveland, Tenn., can do everything. She can score. She can rebound. Howard is coming off a sensational rookie campaign in 2018-19 when she was named the unanimous national freshman of the year. She averaged team-highs 16.4 points and 6.6 rebounds along with 68 steals, 75 assists and 22 blocks.

In addition, Howard is the only second freshman in program history to lead Kentucky in scoring and rebounding, joining former UK All-American Valerie Still.

Many observers are expecting a great performance from Howard this winter. Street & Smith’s has chosen her as a preseason second-team All-American.

The yearbooks also are forecasting a very good season for the UK women’s club. Street & Smith’s has Kentucky at No. 15 nationally while Athlon Sports has the Wildcats at No. 11. Both yearbooks have selected the Oregon Ducks, who participated in women’s NCAA Final Four last spring, as the preseason No. 1 choice.

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Meanwhile, the two powerhouses in NCAA Division II that are familiar to Kentuckians are contending for a national tile this winter.

Street & Smith’s likes Louisville’s Bellarmine at No. 3 and Lincoln Memorial at No. 6 in its preseason Top 10 rankings. Lincoln Memorial, based in Harrogate, Tenn., is practically located on the Kentucky-Tennessee border (near Middlesboro, Ky.).

And don’t forget the Georgetown Tigers. Coming off a national championship season in NAIA Division I, coach Chris Briggs’ team is expected to be tough again this winter.

Street & Smith’s has Georgetown as the preseason favorite, while the Pikeville Bears, coached Kelly Wells, are close by, ranking No. 4 in the same Top 10 poll.

Georgetown visits UK for an exhibition matchup on Sunday, Oct. 27 (5 p.m., SEC Network) at Rupp Arena.

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Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.


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