NCAA BK

Maturing center Josh Harrellson leading Wildcats

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)

Kentucky center Josh Harrellson considers himself a kid at heart, he even counts an 11-year-old as one of his friends.

Harrellson's friendship with Chandler Norfleet is a reflection of the senior's career as a Wildcat: A relationship that seemed doomed from the start only to have an unlikely happy ending.

The 6-foot-10, 265-pound Harrellson inadvertently broke Norfleet's leg while playfully attempting to block the youngster's reverse layup at Kentucky's basketball camp last summer.

Instead of hard feelings developing, a friendship was formed.

It's a almost of a mirror image of Harrellson's playing days at Kentucky.

From the target of much of former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie's ire as a sophomore to an afterthought as a junior, Harrellson has become an integral part of the freshmen-laden 20th-ranked Wildcats this season.

''It seems like I just got here, (but) it seems like I've been here forever too,'' Harrellson said. ''I look back at my first year, it seemed like it was three seasons in one. It was a long road and just these last two years, they flew by.''

Now the player nicknamed ''Jorts'' by the fans for his affinity for jean shorts - he owns nearly a dozen pairs - is readying for the next chapter. He'll play his final home game on Tuesday when the Wildcats (20-8, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) host No. 21 Vanderbilt (21-7, 9-5) at Rupp Arena.

He'll take the floor on Senior Night averaging 6.6 points, 8.9 rebounds in nearly 27 minutes a game. Numbers that are staggering considering Harrellson's minimal impact on the program during his first two seasons after transferring from Southwest Illinois College.

''I don't know if I've ever coached a player that has gotten more out of his body and his skill level and his athleticism than Josh Harrellson, and I've coached a lot of players,'' Calipari said.

The transformation from goof-off to gritty player began when two years of frustration boiled over last fall. Harrellson piled up 26 rebounds during the team's Blue-White scrimmage, a number Calipari dismissed.

Angry, Harrellson went to his Twitter account and questioned when he would get some respect.

Calipari responded by suspending Harrellson's account and ordering him to endure 30 extra minutes of running before practice. The punishment was supposed to last 30 days. Three months later, it's become a part of Harrellson's daily regiment and one of the reasons he's been able to flourish.

''I'm in the best shape I've ever been in,'' he said. ''I can play 30-35 minutes a game and not be exhausted. Before I'd probably play 15-20 minutes a game and be exhausted for two days after it.''

His friendship with Norfleet is another reason for Harrellson's success.

He visited the young boy often during his recovery from the broken leg. Their friendship is built on forgiveness, patience and basketball - three things Harrellson knows in abundance.

Take a peek at Norfleet's Facebook page and there's a picture of he and Harrellson side-by-side, each sporting a somewhat goofy grin. Inside Harrellson's bedroom is a poster promoting Kentucky's Big Blue Madness last fall, with a picture of Harrellson - a notable absence on the original poster - superimposed in the top left corner. The alteration was Norfleet's idea.

''Seeing how much love he has for me, it just puts a smile on my face,'' Harrellson said.

Harrellson has spent most of his final season trying to return the favor.

He hasn't had the luxury of being lazy on a team in desperate need of an inside presence after the NCAA ruled freshman center Enes Kanter permanently ineligible for taking extra benefits from a Turkish Club team two years ago.

While Harrellson's teammates insist he's still the goofy, towel-waving guy who has a knack for knowing when it's time to lighten the mood during practice, these days Harrellson takes his basketball much more serious than he takes himself.

''Something happens to him now when he steps in between the lines,'' said sophomore forward Jon Hood, one of Harrellson's best friends on the team.

Harrellson plays with a purpose and he's carved out a permanent spot in Kentucky lore by scoring 23 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in a win over rival Louisville on New Year's Eve.

The game hasn't proven to be the launching pad Harrellson hoped it would be - he's averaging a solid but not spectacular 6.1 points and 8.4 rebounds in SEC play - but he has been remarkably consistent.

Hard to believe he's the same player who was sent to a bathroom stall at halftime of a loss at Vanderbilt two years ago by Gillispie as punishment for poor play.

Harrellson demurs when asked about the humiliating episode, and credits the mental toughness he developed under Gillispie with helping him survive when Calipari was hired in the spring of 2009.

He's on track to graduate with a degree in corporate communications this May, but plans to give professional basketball a shot. He could have left Kentucky awhile ago and gone to a place where he didn't have to wait two years to have his turn. He's glad he didn't.

''I think a lot of people expected me to leave and at times people would send stuff (on Facebook) that 'You need to leave,''' he said. ''I just looked aside from that. I'm here. I'm going to stay here and work hard and the rewards are paying off now.''

Tagged: Kentucky, Josh Harrellson

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