Could UK-Michigan State season opener hinge on Hagans-Winston matchup?
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Could UK-Michigan State season opener hinge on Hagans-Winston matchup?

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Ashton Hagans of Kentucky brings the ball up against Houston during the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., on March 29, 2019.

Ashton Hagans of Kentucky brings the ball up against Houston during the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., on March 29, 2019. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images/TNS)

The reigning Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year against last season's Big Ten Player of the Year. Ashton Hagans versus Cassius Winston.

The most compelling individual matchup when Kentucky plays Michigan State on Tuesday has that quality of irresistible force and immovable object.

"It's going to be a really good matchup because Ashton is a really good defender, one of the best defenders in college basketball going against one of the best point guards in the game," UK associate coach Kenny Payne said last week. "So it'll be interesting to see, and a big part of us having success in that matchup. (Winston) has to be disrupted. If not, it could be a problem for us because he controls the game."

During an interview session Sunday, Hagans sounded willing to accept the challenge of containing the best player on a team ranked No. 1 in various preseason polls.

"The team is as good as the best player," Hagans said. "You know he's the best player on that team. For us to do what we do, we're going to have to take that away. And that's what we're going to try to do."

Of course, many highly anticipated matchups fail to live up to the pregame hyperbole. Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo cautioned against the notion that Hagans-Winston will determine victory and defeat.

"Those are always key points," Izzo said Sunday of the point guard role the two players share. Then he added, "I don't think it'll define who wins the game. It'll be a good challenge for Cassius (and) a good challenge for (Hagans). Yet, I think we both have got enough good players that have to come through."

Payne suggested a group effort in the defense of Winston.

"I don't know if just playing Ashton on him solely is the right thing to do," he said. "I think you have to throw different guys, different sizes at kids like that, and see what works instead of making it Ashton versus this kid. Maybe that does something to Ashton. We just want to go out and make everything (Winston) does hard."

UK Coach John Calipari echoed that thought Sunday when it was suggested Hagans was the kind of lock-down defender to match up against Winston.

"If he doesn't foul," Calipari said. "If you're trying to keep this kid from scoring, you're going to foul. What you're trying to do is if he gets 25, make them a hard 25."

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When asked about the hype surrounding his matchup with Winston in a nationally televised game in a high-profile setting (Madison Square Garden), Hagans all but shrugged. He said he'd want to settle into the flow of the game.

"Not rushing everything," he said. "Not pressing hard. I say that's the main focus. Not trying to pick up two quick ones. Other than that, I'm going to go out there locked in and ready to play."

The UK point guard speaking of keeping a cool head did not surprise his father.

"I'll be more nervous than him," Marvin Hagans said. "He'll tell me, 'What's wrong with you, man? You're tripping.'"

The elder Hagans cited the example of Kentucky's high-profile game against North Carolina last season as a reason to believe. In that game, UNC freshman Coby White was much ballyhooed. He made three of 11 shots and committed three turnovers. Hagans tied a UK record with eight steals.

Calipari balked at the notion of Hagans' defense of White being an indicator of how productive Winston will be.

"Totally different situation," the UK coach said. White was a freshman. Winston is a senior.

"I don't want him even thinking about 'how I played that game,'" Calipari said of Hagans. "Because he could speed White up. He's not speeding this kid up. This kid is going to play at the pace he wants to play."

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Winston, who is from Detroit, was not even on the All-Big Ten Freshman team three seasons ago. Two years later, he was the league's player of the year. Izzo likened Winston to UK sophomore Immanuel Quickley in terms of showing how much a player can improve from one year to the next. Conditioning and strength elevated Winston.

To read about Winston is to see that substance can be more important than sizzle.

"You can talk about a lot of things he's not," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "He's not big (6-foot-1). He's not athletic. But he knows how to play, and he figures out a way to win."

For instance, Michigan State eliminated Duke, the team that buried UK 118-84 in the season's opener, in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. In that Elite Eight game, Winston had 20 points, 10 assists, four steals and one turnover in playing the entire 40 minutes.

Izzo called Winston "a miniature Draymond," meaning former Spartan Draymond Green.

"I'm not sure he's ever touched the rim," the Michigan State coach said. "Not a great athlete. Not this and that. But one of the smartest players, I think, in the whole game. And he's got a knack."

With a hearty laugh for punctuation, Izzo offered another comparison.

"I tell you' who's I'd compare him to: Tom Brady," Izzo said of Winston. "What I mean is if you look at his body, if you look at his 40 (yard) time, if you look at this and that, you say that guy can't beat you."

The job of making sure Winston does not beat Kentucky falls first on Hagans, who makes no secret of his importance to UK success.

"As I go, I'll say, the team goes," he said.

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SEASON OPENER

No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 1 Michigan State

What: Champions Classic

When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Madison Square Garden in New York

TV: ESPN

Visit the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.) at www.kentucky.com

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