Wildcats, led by the Harrisons, have proved so many wrong
The forced shots, the stagnant offense, the eye-rolling, the body language. And the results. Ugh… the results.
Thirty days ago, this Kentucky team bottomed out. The Wildcats cruised into Columbia, ready to gather up a victory over an uninspiring South Carolina team and then head home to play Alabama. Instead, they took a forearm to the chops and left town with another “L,” their third in four games.
And it was the Harrisons who had become the lightning rods for criticism. They were hailed pre-season, by scouting services and media alike, as exactly what Kentucky needed: Deadeye marksmen with an unflagging will to win. It sounded like manna from basketball heaven for a team that, the year prior, folded down the stretch amid a flurry of missed jump shots.
But it wasn’t working, and the Big Blue Nation directed its ire at the brothers from Houston. We’ve been sold a bill of goods, said message board posters, talk show callers and Tweeters. Who do we see about this? Oh, yes, the guy who brought them here. And he’s as much to blame.
This “experiment,” as some called it, stocking the roster with a record-setting number of high school All-Americans? That’s a bust, too, a lot of us thought. John Calipari simply HAS to change the way he’s doing business, we reasoned. His 2012 NCAA title team can not be held up as the rule; rather, it was the exception. Unless you have an Anthony Davis AND a Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, along with two sophomores and a senior, you have to forget about building your team around freshmen.
And then came Atlanta.
Coming off a blowout loss at Florida in the regular season finale, Calipari promised a different team in the post-season. Perhaps it was something he saw in a five-minute run in Gainesville, when his team outscored the Gators, 15-0. It had little impact on the final score, but perhaps it showed the UK coach that his team still had the heart and grit it takes to do what had been predicted for it.
So he put himself out there, with talk of mysterious “tweaks” that Basketball Bennies should be able to spot. And to his everlasting credit, his teams responded to whatever was happening in the JoeCraftCenter.
At the SEC Tournament, Kentucky looked like a different team and it started with the Harrisons. Andrew made extra passes, twice setting career highs for assists. And Aaron made shots, 12 of 19 in the first two wins before cooling off (6-of-17) in the title game against Florida.
The Wildcats finished one made bucket from upsetting the team that would go on to be named the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament and still was seeded eighth in the Midwest. It would take an unlikely run to make the Final Four, but we all know how that worked out.
Kentucky’s talented array of big men took turns pounding their opponents in the Midwest Regional. Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein (pre-injury) and even Marcus Lee had their way at the rim. Alex Poythress would appear suddenly and do something spectacular, as he has all season.
But through it all, the brothers produced. Against Kansas State – 18 points from Aaron, five assists from Andrew. They combined for 39 in the upset of top-seeded Wichita State, with Andrew draining three big free throws in the final 42 seconds.
In the Louisville game, they were both money again: Aaron with 15 points, 6-of-6 at the free throw line. Andrew with 14 points and seven assists against the Cardinals’ pressure defense.
And then there was Michigan. It figured to be a game that came down to the Wolverines’ outside shooting prowess versus the Wildcats’ inside muscle and, sure enough, Randle had his double-double and Lee was unexpectedly spectacular.
But in the end, the game – literally – was in the hands of the Harrisons. Andrew, who finished with six assists, handed the ball to his brother and watched as Aaron, with Caris LeVert guarding him so tightly the shooter could feel the defender’s hand grazing his, buried an area code triple, the biggest shot of his life and one of the grandest in the history of a program plump with huge buckets.
Two-point-three seconds later, Michigan’s desperation heave a memory, the turnaround was complete. The Wildcats were heading for Arlington, Texas.
When the Cats were at their worst, at South Carolina, Aaron assured us that the best was still to come. He told reporters he still believed the season would have a happy ending. “Because we know what we can do,” he said back then. “We know, we talk about it. Even after the game, we just — we know what we can do, and we know we’re going to make a run to have a big, great story for everyone to talk about.”
And he was absolutely right.
“They have been through so much,” Calipari said of his team, and could well have been saying specifically of the twins. “They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned, ‘They can’t play, they’re not a team, you can’t do it this way.’ But they stayed together. It makes you strong. It makes you tough as nails. And we just hung around.”
That they did. Why? Because we were wrong.
Not about the eye-rolling, the bad body language and the terrible offensive spacing. If we never see that again, it’ll be too soon. But these kids? They’re the real deal – especially the ones who look alike.