If this Kentucky basketball team finishes the season in a good place, a fun place, a deep-run-through-the-NCAA-tournament kind of place, we’ll all be tracking the path it took. And the first big step may have come against the Louisville Cardinals Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena.
The gang that couldn’t shoot straight (or hang on to the basketball) in the closing minutes against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, did both in the victory over their arch-rivals, and pulled out a victory without its best player for most of the second half.
In the accelerated learning program that is Kentucky basketball these days, it’s imperative that players age, if not in dog years, in condensed days. They don’t have two, three or four years to work their way to a run at a national title. They have months, and the first two of this season are now gone.
The young Wildcats grew a little on Saturday. Or maybe a lot.
Julius Randle was busy having a monster first half against the Cardinals who, according to U of L coach Rick Pitino, were slow setting up their double teams of Kentucky’s best player. And, he said, Randle had another advantage.
“He’s the beneficiary of the new rules of college basketball more than anybody,” Pitino said. “I though t we drew a clean offensive foul on the first play of the game. Obviously, the referee who is on this game every year didn’t agree with me,” presumably talking about veteran official Tony Green.
But something else was happening in that first half, and it carried over into the second. Andrew Harrison was having a game.
Yes, Andrew. Not the guy who looks just like him. Understandable if you’re confused, because Aaron up until now has been the twin who’s turned heads with heady play, not to mention his scoring ability.
Andrew has struggled as the point guard trying to balance the need to distribute the ball with his yearning to score, as he did in high school and on the AAU level. Against the Cardinals, he did both – skillfully.
And it came at a good time early in the game, when his brother was struggling.
And in the second half, when Randle was sidelined with what UK called “persistent leg cramping,” Aaron began to find his way to the bucket, including a layup off a long pass by James Young that would have made Tom Brady envious.
There was little or no head-hanging, pouting, or bad body language that evidently had preceded them, all the way into the Cardinals’ scouting report.
“I thought the Harrisons were very much under control, handled pressure, they didn’t force things,” Pitino said. “They showed much more maturity than what everybody was saying. I was hearing all these things and I thought they showed great maturity tonight.”
Andrew finished with a career-high 18 points, along with four rebounds and just two assists, but he also committed only three turnovers in 34 minutes.
“What I liked when the game was on the line and the game was in the balance, he made good plays,” said UK coach John Calipari. “How about the pass he makes to Alex?”
Yes. Highlight reel stuff. With 1:46 remaining and the Cats up by eight, with the Cards applying pressure, Andrew drove down the left side of the lane. At the baseline, Louisville greeted him with a double-team. Instead of forcing the ball to the rim, Harrison crafted a nifty wrap-around pass, finding Alex Poythress on the right baseline. Poythress had a clear path to a monstrous two-handed jam, making it a 10-point game and essentially sealing the victory.
“He could have tried to shoot that,” Calipari said. “That dunk basically put it to 10 and kind of put it out of reach.”
And with a victory – finally – over a ranked team (U of L had come in rated sixth, to UK’s 18th), these young Wildcats can point to a quality win as a sure sign that they’re growing. “Yeah, but at the same time, we have practice tomorrow at 6,” said Andrew Harrison (and it’s doubtful he meant 6 p.m.).
The growth, he said, came through toughness. That, and playing as a team, something Calipari had made the focal point before sending his guys out to face the Cardinals. “Here is what was on the board today,” said Calipari. “Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team. That was the keys to the game.”
They did all three, especially after Randle was forced to leave the game for the final time. There were still 14 minutes left, and the Cats had no way of knowing their All-America candidate was through for the night. But they just kept playing, thanks in large part to their point guard.
“Today we improved on toughness and playing as a team, everyone getting the ball and contributing to the win,” Andrew Harrison said. “We never got down on ourselves and really showed heart. We knew we had to bring it to win this game and we did.”
Some of the 24,396 fans who made their way into Rupp Arena (ninth-largest crowd in school history) might have left wondering if this team had turned a corner. Usually, it’s easiest to decide that by turning around, to get a better perspective. And it’s far too soon for that.
We could know by April, though. And if this team is celebrating, odds are we’ll all agree it turned a huge corner by beating the Cardinals.