NEWARK, N.J. — The hulking country boy from Missouri who didn’t play organized basketball until high school was an afterthought entering this season. He was hidden behind the buzz surrounding Turkish import Enes Kanter, a freshman center and consensus top-five recruit.
Now, the overlooked center is the ever-increasing center of attention.
UK senior Josh Harrellson’s rise to prominence and inspired play in the NCAA Tournament has been well-documented already and with good reason.
For as much as Kanter could’ve helped this team, he would’ve been yet another talented freshman playing under Calipari, but anything he would’ve accomplished, even if it was done in a much more impressive manner than what Harrellson has accomplished, wouldn’t have made you feel as warm and fuzzy inside because it would’ve been expected of the Turkish big man given his reputation.
“I never thought that I would be the player that I am today,” Harrellson said.
Neither did much of the UK fan base. Or UK head coach John Calipari. Or even Harrellson’s teammates.
Earlier this season, several UK players stated that they needed Kanter to be ruled eligible by the NCAA to have a post presence and, as a byproduct, have a much better chance of going deep into the postseason. Recently, Calipari has instructed his players to call Harrellson “Enes” in practice.
UK freshman forward Terrence Jones explained his coach’s request: “In one interview, he said if Enes played it’d be a different story and that was a little disrespectful to Josh because Josh is playing (well).”
The UK player patrolling the paint for a majority of the game has changed, but the conclusion of the story has not. With Harrellson logging starter’s minutes for the first time in his three years at UK, the Cats are on the precipice of returning to the Final Four, just like last season. Unlike last season, however, Harrellson is largely responsible for the Cats reaching this point.
An early season Twitter controversy, in which he criticized his coach for a lack of praise, almost resulted in Harrellson losing his place on the team altogether, which would’ve erased the possibility of his magical NCAA Tournament run: Through UK’s first three NCAA games, Harrellson leads the team in scoring (15.6 points per game) and rebounding (9.3 rebounds per game) after playing all of six minutes in UK’s run to the Elite Eight last season and being interviewed “once, maybe twice” before facing West Virginia last year.
“He’s totally changed his body. He totally changed his approach to practice. He’s totally changed his skill level,” Calipari said. “And what’s happened is you see a different result. You see a player that has had as big an impact on college basketball as anybody right now.”
Everyone saw Harrellson making plays on ESPN’s “Sportscenter” after UK’s upset of the top-seeded Buckeyes, but what they didn’t see were the 60 days of conditioning Harrellson endured post-Twitter controversy.
Harrellson would trudge to practice 30 minutes earlier than any of his teammates, and UK assistant coach Kenny Payne would monitor him while he ran suicides, line drills and performed push-ups and sit-ups without a break and without a ball touching his hands.
The pure conditioning was no more difficult for Harrellson than facing the likes of Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Enes Kanter routinely in practice over the span of the last two years.
“Playing against the best big men everyday is an opportunity most people don’t get … it’s making me a different a player,” Harrellson said.
A player capable of guarding Jared Sullinger, one of the nation’s best freshmen and interior players. And, perhaps, a player capable of impacting yet another game, this time in a rematch with North Carolina’s 7-foot Tyler Zeller on Sunday.
The culmination of his efforts would be highlighted by UK making its first trip to the Final Four in 13 years, a truly storybook ending to the longest chapter of UK’s history without an appearance in the national semifinals.
“If we make it there, it’s just going to be a great honor,” Harrellson said. “Hopefully, a lot of people will look up and see what I’ve done and see my story: a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance and a lot of patience — I waited for my chance, and with Enes being ineligible God presented me with the chance to take the opportunity, and I took full control of it.”
Final Four appearance or not, the Josh Harrellson story has provided compelling drama and a reassurance that even at the highest level of collegiate basketball — which often doesn’t promulgate the feeling of amateur athletics with the glitz and glamor the star players receive — an unknown player can become known on his own accord.