Harrellson has become center of attention
TAMPA – At this NCAA tournament, Cinderella has traded in her ball gown for denim shorts.
Josh Harrellson has spent the past six months moving from the end of Kentucky’s bench to the center of attention. The guy who earned the nickname “Jorts” for his love of jean shorts has captured the hearts of college basketball’s most passionate fan base.
Harrellson, a 6-foot-10 senior forward, made the SEC’s all-tournament team and averaged 15.0 points and 9.0 boards in his first two NCAA tournament games. He converted an offensive rebound with 5:27 left Saturday to put Kentucky ahead for good in a 71-63 victory over West Virginia.
“Every day until about our first game this season, I never knew it was going to happen,” Harrellson said. “I never thought I’d be the type of player I am.”
Harrellson next must try to help Kentucky slow Jared Sullinger when the fourth-seeded Wildcats (27-8) face top-seeded Ohio State (34-2) in an East Regional semifinal Friday in Newark, N.J.
Kentucky is a 5.5-point underdog, but Harrellson already has beaten much longer odds.
He arrived at Kentucky as a transfer from Southwestern Illinois College, a junior college in Belleville, Ill., which is right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He fell out of favor with then-Wildcats coach Billy Gillispie as a sophomore and played just 88 minutes last season for current coach John Calipari as a junior.
But Harrellson cracked the starting lineup out of necessity at the beginning of this season and has remained there ever since. In a locker room teeming with five-star recruits and freshman phenoms, this well-traveled senior has emerged as one of Kentucky’s most valuable players.
“Just like ‘Coach Cal’ said earlier in the season, basketball’s not about taking all the great talents. It’s about making players better,” Harrellson said. “That’s what he did with me. I don’t have all the talent in the world, but I have hard work and determination. That’s what he brought out in me.”
The low point of Harrellson’s career came two years ago during a 77-64 loss at Vanderbilt. Harrellson said he was forced to sit in a bathroom stall at halftime and had to ride home on the equipment truck. Harrellson said he has no hard feelings toward Gillispie and still calls his former coach occasionally, and Gillispie – who was hired as Texas Tech’s coach over the weekend – has indicated he couldn’t be prouder of his former player.
“Every coach has a different way of coaching,” Harrellson said. “Bobby Knight’s done different things. Every coach has a different way of teaching and coaching. [Gillispie] was trying to teach me to just come and play tough, and just trying to teach me a different way than I was used to learning.”
After Calipari came aboard and added eventual first-round picks DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton to a frontcourt that already featured Patrick Patterson, Harrellson became an afterthought.
Though Cousins and Orton left for the NBA after their freshman seasons, Harrellson still seemed unlikely to earn much playing time after Calipari signed five-star power forward prospects Enes Kanter and Terrence Jones last spring.
That’s when fate – or at least the NCAA – intervened.
Kanter was ruled permanently ineligible for receiving impermissible benefits while competing for a Turkish professional team, and Kentucky suddenly had a major hole in its frontcourt.
“It just made me want to be there for my team,” Harrellson said. “It made me want to get in better shape, made me want to be ready to come out and compete when I know my teammates needed me. I just changed my work habits and work ethic.”
A preseason punishment made him work even harder.
Harrellson got in Calipari’s doghouse for sending a Tweet complaining about comments the coach had made about him after a scrimmage. His penalty included extra running and conditioning drills that got him in the best shape of his life.
“It definitely worked,” Harrellson said. “It turned out to be a blessing for me.”
His improved stamina was evident when he played 34 minutes in a Maui Classic victory over Washington. He opened some eyes with a 14-point, 12-rebound performance in an 81-62 victory over Indiana on Dec. 11. Then he really garnered some attention by scoring 23 points and pulling down 14 rebounds in a 78-63 triumph at Louisville on New Year’s Eve.
The Louisville performance raised his confidence level and caused his teammates and coaches to develop more faith in him.
“Coach and them, I don’t think they ever thought I could be the player I am,” Harrellson said. “They probably never thought I’d play significant minutes like I do now, but I changed their confidence in me. I showed them what I could do, and they started having more confidence in me.”
Harrellson leads the SEC in rebounds per game (8.8) and field-goal percentage (.604). After scoring in double figures just twice in the final 16 regular-season games, he averaged 10.3 points in the SEC tournament and has scored 15 points in each of his first two NCAA tournament contests.
“When you watch a player like Josh, it’s not me,” Calipari said. “I don’t have a magic wand. What you try to do is talk to them about what they have to change to change the result of how they’re playing, which means you’ve got to change your body sometimes. Other times, you’ve got to change your mentality. … And then the other thing is you’ve got to change your skill set.
“If you don’t change, there’s no way the end result is going to change. You’re going to be the same player. He’s changed all that.”
At least one person isn’t surprised by the change.
Harrellson was a junior at St. Charles (Mo.) High still learning the game when Derek Thomas started recruiting him for Western Illinois. Harrellson signed with Western Illinois out of high school but was released from his letter-of-intent after Thomas resigned.
Thomas said other recruiters laughed when he said Harrellson was good enough to play in the Big Ten. Nobody’s laughing anymore.
“Everybody in the Midwest said he was raw and wasn’t ready,” said Thomas, now an assistant at Detroit. “I saw big hands. I saw good feet. He was a great physical specimen and had a nice touch.”
Now, he will get to match up against the best the Big Ten has to offer, and Harrellson savors the challenge.
“Sullinger, he’s a great big man, one of the best big men in the country,” Harrellson said. “It’s going to be a tough matchup. Hopefully, we can double-team him or do whatever we can do to contain him. I’m going to try my best and do whatever I can do to compete against him.”
Harrellson already has accomplished an equally tough task: He has enabled the nation’s winningest program to produce the season’s biggest Cinderella story.