Andrew Harrison evolves from prospect to point guard

broberts@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2014 Updated 6 hours ago

  • Next game: Kentucky vs. Notre Dame

    When: 8:49 p.m. Saturday

    Location: Cleveland

    TV: TBS

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: No. 1 seed Kentucky 37-0; No. 3 seed Notre Dame 32-5

    Series: UK leads 42-19

INDIANAPOLIS — There was a moment during Saturday's press conference when John Calipari asked the five freshmen sharing the podium with him to raise their hand if their first season at Kentucky had been a hard one.

One by one, Aaron Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson raised a hand. Julius Randle even joined in.

Andrew Harrison had both hands in the air.

The past seven months haven't been easy for UK's young point guard. And maybe that's for the best.

"Every freshman that's highly recruited thinks they're going to come in here and be player of the year, and it's all going to be fun," Harrison said. "But it wasn't like that. And I'm kind of happy it wasn't. I hit some bumps in the road, and we got through it."

Before his arrival, Harrison was hailed as the best point guard in the freshman class, maybe the best in all of college basketball. He was a surefire NBA lottery pick, an unshakable bulldog of a player who would always make the right decisions and would hold teammates accountable when they did not.

He was none of those things for much of the season, and he knows it.

Harrison spoke Saturday of the scrutiny and criticism that came with being projected as a can't-miss leader on a team that ultimately missed plenty during a rudderless regular season.

"You just have to fight through it — the adversity, which is something I'd never experienced before on the basketball court," he said. "I think it just made me tougher."

His teammates described a player who was hesitant to take command when he arrived in Lexington last August. Harrison wasn't the vocal leader these Wildcats needed, and no one filled that role.

At some point in the past few weeks, something clicked.

Harrison's first two SEC Tournament games — victories over Louisiana State and Georgia — were among the most productive that any UK point guard has ever had in that event.

He made several clutch plays and scored a game-high 20 points in UK's upset of Wichita State.

And then there was Friday night.

Harrison had 14 points, seven of UK's eight assists and just two turnovers in the Cats' victory over defending champion and archrival Louisville.

There was a series midway through the second half when the Cardinals started to make a run. "We were kind of dying actually," said Aaron Harrison. But his twin brother scored six straight points and then threw a lob pass to Young for two more.

His drives to the basket were controlled during that series. His pass to Young was perfect. Every decision was the right one, and it kept Kentucky in the game.

If not for those three minutes, the Cats might have been back home in Lexington on Saturday, contemplating their professional futures. Instead, they sat at a podium in Indianapolis, 40 minutes from a trip to the Final Four.

Those three minutes summed up the evolution of Andrew Harrison as prospect to Andrew Harrison as point guard.

His teammates now describe him as the player who takes charge on the court and in the huddle, the face they look to when times get tough.

"There's a lot on his shoulders and he's doing good with it," Young said. "He's just taking it all in, knowing what he has to do. And he's leading us really well. He gives us a lot of energy, brings us all up. I guess he's maturing as a player."

Aaron Harrison, who knows Andrew better than anyone, says his brother is "just having fun." For whatever reason, Andrew is smiling more and stressing less.

"I think he just ... went back to playing how he usually plays," Aaron said.

To the 18-year-olds he now leads, Andrew Harrison's transformation might seem that simple: a choice he made to be a different player when it mattered. The 55-year-old with a national championship ring knows better. To him, it was a process, months in the making.

"He understands the grind better, how you have to work," Calipari said. "He understands the effect he has on his team more than ever — that he's got to be more focused on his teammates than himself.

"He's matured. He got on campus in August. ... So this is for him — and really all these guys — where they were and where they've come. It's incredible. Incredible story."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog:

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