To John Calipari, it’s obvious. And it was evident again Saturday afternoon during Kentucky’s 82-54 win over Marshall in Rupp Arena: The Wildcats play better when Ryan Harrow is on top of his game. And Harrow excels when he chooses to be the better side of his basketball split personality.
“When he’s playing the right way, with aggressiveness, talking to his teammates – that look in his eye – he’s as good as anybody in the country right now,” Calipari said. “That other guy, the ‘cool guy’ – he’s not very good. The guy who runs in and gets bumped and falls on the floor and just throws the ball – that guy’s not very good.”
He told Harrow as much during huddles, and he shared it again with his point guard in the locker room after the game.
“Coach Cal said the good guy is one of the best point guards in the nation,” Harrow said. “The cool guy sucks.”
Harrow did anything but… that… in the win over the Thundering Herd. He scored a career-high 23 points, adding four assists, four rebounds and a career-high three steals.
“I don’t want to be a sucky player,” Harrow said. “I gotta play aggressively.”
That aggressive play was one of several facets of the game that pleased Calipari, who said his team definitely got better during the previous week. Way better, in fact. And had it not been for 35 percent shooting in the first half, including five missed layups, the Wildcats would have led by more than the 33-24 advantage they owned at halftime.
Marshall scored the first seven points of the second period and made it a two-point game, but Kentucky exploded with a 26-5 run and never looked back, leading by as many as 31 points. There was defense during that run, rebounding, shots falling and even emotion, which actually was on display all afternoon.
In the first half, Nerlens Noel first chased down an escaping Marshall player and blocked his attempted layup; then he capped off an 11-2 run with a steal-dunk-and-one, resulting in a roar from the 24-thousand plus, a primal scream by Noel and chest bumps from the other four Wildcats on the floor.
“We hadn’t seen that (kind of emotion) all year, but we’re starting to get into each other now, versus into ourselves,” Calipari said. “It’s nice to see.”
There was even a smile from the usually stoic Alex Poythress, both on the floor and after the game, when he was reminded of Noel’s runout slam.
“We’ve been trying to show emotion. Coach has been on us about that,” Poythress said. “We’v e just gotta show that we’re having fun out there.” He even admitted to the on-court grin. “I was happy, playing with my teammates,” he said.
Next up for Poythress and his pals are the Louisville Cardinals, and if the Wildcats are smiling after that one, it will mean they’ve pulled off an upset of the nation’s fifth-ranked (as of Saturday) team, one that figures to be a decided favorite in the matchup of arch-rivals – although Poythress says he doesn’t know too much about the history of the series.
The rivalry he heard about growing up in Clarksville, Tennessee? “Austin Peay and Belmont,” he said, that smile erupting again.
Poythress might not know much about the history of the series but he does have prior knowledge of the Cardinals. “They’re a good team,” he said. “Athletic, well-coached. They’ve got great guards, size. It should be a great game.”
As for Harrow, he says he hasn’t watched U of L. Not once. “Nah, I don’t watch them,” he said.
His coach feigned ignorance of Kentucky’s next game. “Who are we playing next week? Oh, we’re playing Louisville? Wow, that’s gonna be a hard game,” he said.
The last time these teams met, a berth in the national title game was on the line, at the Final Four in New Orleans. Some of the current Cardinals were part of that Game for the Ages. Kyle Wiltjer is the only Wildcat who saw time against the Cards in March.
Calipari claims to be worried only about his team. “If we go in and Louisville’s way better than us, we move on to the next game,” he said.
And the Cardinals will be just that – way better than Kentucky, IF the cool-guy Ryan Harrow shows up. If we see the Harrow who directed his team to the win over Marshall, the Cats could give the Cards a run.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)