Kentucky vets in spotlight
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 8:00 pm
By: By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Until a week ago, Josh Harrellson’s NCAA Tournament experience consisted largely of towel waving.
The Kentucky senior center admits he grew pretty good at it while spending most of last season on the bench watching soon-to-be NBAers DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Patrick Patterson revitalize the Wildcats.
Harrellson even admitted last month a part of him missed cutting up on the sidelines during games with close friend and teammate Jon Hood. Given a choice, the typically blunt Harrellson admits he would liked to have seen how good Kentucky would be if Cousins and company chose to return rather than head to the pros.
Yet they’re gone. Harrellson stayed. He didn’t really have a choice.
Neither did DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller, the two other major holdovers from last year’s team that came one game short of the Final Four.
There can be a bit of a stigma when you’re an upperclassman playing for Kentucky coach John Calipari. His best players tend to have short stays on campus before sprinting to the NBA.
Though Calipari says he’ll take talent over experience every time, his three veterans have given the fourth-seeded Wildcats (27-8) an unlikely mixture of both heading into Friday’s regional semifinal against top-seeded Ohio State (34-2).
Harrellson’s relentless rebounding helped push Kentucky past West Virginia in the third round last Saturday.
Miller was named the Southeastern Conference Tournament’s most valuable player after leading the Wildcats to their second straight tournament crown and 27th overall.
Liggins’ massive wingspan can swallow up opposing guards. He shut down West Virginia’s Joe Mazzulla in the second half last Saturday as the Wildcats rallied to a 71-63 victory.
All this from players who figured to cede the spotlight to Calipari’s latest group of precocious freshmen when the season began.
“I don’t have a magic wand,” Calipari said when asked to explain the marked improvement of the players considered an afterthought last spring. “What you try to do is talk to them about what they have to change.”
For Harrellson, it was getting in shape — and staying in shape — after Cousins left and incoming freshman center Enes Kanter was deemed ineligible by the NCAA for accepting above the minimum benefits while playing for a Turkish Club team two years ago.
For Miller it meant finding the “inner tiger” Calipari knew was in there but struggled to bring out on a consistent basis.
For Liggins, it was realizing his dream of being an elite playmaker was gone and instead focusing on his new role as the team’s defensive stopper.
All three have come through at critical times for Kentucky, which has won eight straight heading into the showdown with the Buckeyes.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta has taken notice, particularly of Harrellson. The SEC’s leading rebounder will likely find himself matched up with super freshman Jared Sullinger.
“Here’s a guy that’s said ’Hey, here’s my job’ and I think he’s been very effective,” Matta said.
Never more so than during one crucial sequence in the second half against the Mountaineers. With the score tied at 55 and less than 6 minutes to go, Harrellson chased down a missed 3-pointer by point guard Brandon Knight. He grabbed the ball and tried a putback. Miss. Grabbed it again. Miss.
Finally, on his third attempt Harrellson got the ball to fall, drawing the foul in the process. Kentucky never trailed again.
Calipari called it the play of the game. Harrellson called it just another day in the office.
“I had to go get it,” he said.
It’s a mindset that has won Calipari over, one shared by the blossoming Miller. Criticized often during the first two years of his career for disappearing in plain sight during games, Miller has given the Wildcats a legitimate third scoring option behind freshmen Knight and Terrence Jones.
The former Kentucky Mr. Basketball as a high schooler missed his first five shots against West Virginia.
A year ago, it would have been enough for him to give the ball up when it came his way. Not anymore. A minute after Harrellson’s bucket, Miller drilled a 3-pointer to push Kentucky’s lead to 60-55.
Liggins watched Mazzulla put up 15 points in the first half before Calipari sent Liggins after him. Mazzulla had just five points after the break.
“I just wanted to make it tough for him in the second half, which I did,” Liggins said.
He hopes to do the same on Friday night, when he’ll likely be matched up with Ohio State sharpshooters Jon Diebler and David Lighty.
The task will be the most difficult of Liggins’ career. Calipari says he wasn’t sure he wanted to watch the game tape of Ohio State’s 98-66 dismantling of George Mason in the third round.
For once, the talent advantage will swing firmly away from the Wildcats. That’s fine for their old guys, who have grown accustomed to surprising people, particularly the former benchwarmer who played all of 88 minutes as a junior.
“I didn’t know Josh could do all of this,” said freshman guard Doron Lamb. “He has been shocking all of us and we just love him.”