Kentucky-Auburn matches veteran Harper, freshman Hagans
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans is one of the Southeastern Conference’s top defenders, a freshman point guard who arrived in Lexington as one of the nation’s coveted prospects.
Auburn’s Jared Harper is a three-year starter and one of the league’s most accurate 3-point shooters but wasn’t quite so highly recruited.
The point guards will face off Saturday when the 12th-ranked Wildcats and No. 14 Auburn meet in a showdown of likely league contenders.
“It’ll be a great matchup,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Friday. “Jared is still going to have a ton to prove in the sense that obviously Kentucky didn’t recruit Jared, and a lot of people didn’t recruit Jared.”
That wasn’t a problem for the 6-foot-3, 192-pound Hagans, who was rated as a top 15 national recruit and has been playing like it.
Pearl expects him to be guarding the 6-footer Harper, who’s more of a scorer and outside shooter and also leads the SEC in assists.
Hagans, who skipped his final year of high school eligibility to start his college career, has gone from defensive disruptor and likely the Wildcats’ top on-the-ball defender to an offensive force.
He’s averaging 15.8 points, 4.4 assists and 3.6 steals over the last five games. Before those five double-digit outings, he hadn’t scored more than eight points in a game.
And that’s OK with his coach, who has no shortage of scorers.
“We’re not counting on Ashton to score,” the Wildcats’ John Calipari said. “Let’s run our club and get people involved, and if you have opportunities to score do it.”
A one-time Georgia commitment, Hagans is coming off his best all-around game in his home state. He faced down jeers from the jilted Bulldogs fans with a career-best 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals.
“I’m getting comfortable,” Hagans said after the game. “But I’ve just got to keep it going ... I feel my game is going up these past couple of games.”
Pearl thinks Hagans’ offensive surge has a lot to do with confidence in his role. He attributes some of that to the departure of former five-star point guard recruit Quade Green, who announced on Dec. 20 he was transferring to Washington
“I think part of the reason is when Green transferred to Washington, it became clear, ‘Ashton, this is your team,’” Pearl said. “That’s what a lot of point guards need. They really need that. It’s like changing quarterbacks: This is your team.”
And Auburn is Harper’s team. But their roles are decidedly different.
Hagans is averaging a modest 7.6 points per game — even after doubling it with the recent hot streak — and is second in the SEC with 2.3 steals per game.
Harper is eighth with a 15.1-point average, tops the SEC with 6.7 assists a game and is in the Top 5 in both 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage.
“You know he can shoot,” Kentucky guard Tyler Herro said. “I think Ashton is a great defender that will get into him and not allow him to come in transition and knock down 3s.”
Harper and Hagans are both from Georgia. The Auburn guard says the two became acquainted when his Kentucky counterpart was 14 or 15 and spent time together again on Hagans’ recruiting visits to Auburn.
“He’s playing very well right now on both sides of the floor,” Harper said. “He’s a freshman, so he’s starting to get into his flow this year, and how he can impact the game on both sides of the floor.”
Pearl said Auburn was one of the first teams to offer Hagans a scholarship but even then the coach figured the Wildcats would ultimately come calling.
“I said, ‘Kentucky’s going to offer you,’” the Auburn coach said. “He kind of smiled. I said, ‘No listen, I’m telling you Kentucky’s going to offer you and you’re going to end up going to Kentucky.’
“He said, ‘No, no, I’m not.’ I knew he was going to be really good.”
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves contributed to this report in Lexington, Kentucky.
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