Although Enes Kanter could not play this season, the freshman from Turkey can take a bow for helping Kentucky reach the Final Four.
Josh Harrellson, whose blossoming this post-season has made him one of the big stories in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, credited Kanter for helping sharpen his skills in practice.
"That helps a lot going against him every day," Harrellson said Tuesday. "He's making me a better player."
Harrellson, UK's second-leading scorer (14.8 ppg) and leader in rebounding (9.0 rpg) and steals (1.8 spg) in the NCAA Tournament, noted how practice competition against Kanter enhanced his self-confidence.
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"Being able to stop him in practice, playing against him every day, playing against the best of the best, just makes me know going into the game I'm not going to go against anyone as good as Enes," Harrellson said.
Kanter's role in helping make Harrellson a much better player has largely gone unnoticed. Harrellson's rags-to-riches story, which figures to get several retellings in Houston later this week, has centered on his ill-advised pre-season tweet complaining about UK Coach John Calipari, the subsequent punishment of extra conditioning and the unintended consequence of a fitter Harrellson becoming a much more productive player.
Apparently all along, Kanter helped Harrellson's growth as a player, too.
"Just competing against him, doing drills with him," Harrellson said. "Even if I'm not going against him, just watching him do something. I'm just trying to match what he does."
Harrellson put Kanter on a par with freshman All-American Jared Sullinger of Ohio State or North Carolina 7-footer Tyler Zeller. Or, more to the point looking ahead, Alex Oriakhi of Connecticut.
Harrellson noted Sullinger's knowledge about how to use his body, Zeller's height and ability to run the floor and Oriakhi's explosive strength.
"Enes is kind of like all three of those guys combined into one," Harrellson said. "He's not 7-foot, but he can run the floor. He's got a big body and knows how to use it. He can even step out and shoot the 15-footer like Zeller can. ..."
"Going against him just gives me a different advantage going into games."
That advantage for Kentucky extends beyond Harrellson, point guard Brandon Knight said. The advantage is just more pronounced with Harrellson.
"Because he's one of the best big men in the country, for Josh to go up against him each and every day helps him out," Knight said. "(Harrellson) knows what he can and can't do. When you do it against the best of the best, it transfers over to the game."
Knight said he could see Harrellson's growth in those regular practice competitions against Kanter.
"We could see Josh start to score against him a little bit more and start to try certain things," Knight said.
But other UK players benefit from Kanter's presence in practice, whether in terms of working to defend against a quality big man or trying to score against him, Knight said.
Of learning by trying to defend Kanter, Knight said, "Enes makes it a lot harder than a lot of 'bigs' do because he can pass out of double teams. He can dribble out of it, and he can also shoot."
Kentucky signed Kanter despite questions about his amateur status. He played three seasons for a professional team in his native Turkey. That team, Fenerbahce Ulker, shared banking and housing records with the NCAA. UK ultimately agreed with an NCAA conclusion that Kanter received $33,000 in excess of permitted compensation in his third season with Fenerbahce Ulker.
At UK's Media Day in October, Harrellson volunteered to give his senior season to Kanter. With everything that's happened, Harrellson said he was happy that offer never became a reality.
"It's not going to hurt him," Harrellson said of Kanter's ineligibility. "He's still going to the next level and do his thing. ...
"I'm a little selfish. I'm glad I got to play."
After the NCAA ruling denied UK's final appeal on Kanter's eligibility on Jan. 7, UK made him a student assistant coach. It's a role usually reserved for players who have exhausted their eligibility or been sidelined for the rest of their college careers because of injury.
Student assistant coaches are not supposed to participate as players in practice, but the NCAA does not regularly enforce the rule.
Since the end of the regular season, Kanter has had little involvement in Kentucky's preparation, spokesman De-Wayne Peevy said. Kanter has not made a road trip since the Alabama game on Jan. 18.
"He can and could have as a undergraduate student assistant coach," Peevy said of Kanter's absence from the Southeastern and NCAA tournaments. "He chose not to so he could concentrate on his schoolwork. As of now, he doesn't plan to go to Houston."
But, in a sense, Kanter will be there in the form of Harrellson's play.
When hopes of Kanter playing this season died in January, so did expectations of a Final Four for Kentucky this year.
"I guess it kind of got me down a little bit," Harrellson said of the inference that he wasn't a suitable replacement. "... A lot of people are happy now. I've taken full advantage of my opportunity and done a lot of good things with it."