Josh Harrelleson was the ultimate whipping boy among whipping boys. It was so bad, in fact, that he was once sentenced to the bathroom stall at halftime by former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, then forced to ride home in the equipment van.
“I thought he’d break,” admitted Kentucky guard Darius Miller.
“So did I,” added fellow teammate DeAndre Liggins.
But Harrellson somehow stuck with it, and has become arguably the Wildcats’ most important player.
Harrellson wasn’t supposed to play more than a handful of minutes this season, only when likely lottery pick Enes Kanter was either in foul trouble, needed a quick breather, or in blowouts.
But then came the news from the NCAA that the Kanter was ineligible for the rest of his career because he was deemed a professional.
Kentucky coach John Calipari had no other option. Harrellson had to play.
Kentucky was done. Big Blue Nation’s Final Four hopes finished before the season even began. This would ultimately be Kentucky’s downfall since John Calipari had loaded up with another stellar freshman class, but without Kanter, there was no legitimate big man with a pulse.
Harrellson was a lazy, out-of-shape big man who couldn’t get out of Gillispie’s doghouse and wasn’t much further ahead of the walk-ons on Calipari’s depth chart last season.
But he showed signs of life even before the season opener. Following an intrasquad game in October in which Harrellson was extremely effective on the glass, the 6-foot-10, 275-pounder was upset with the lack of praise bestowed upon him by Calipari.
“I can’t get a ‘good job’ or ‘way to go’,” he tweeted.
Calipari then ordered Harrellson to shut down his Twitter account, and responded with a tweet of his own: “He won’t be tweeting until he’s responsible enough to handle success and failure.”
Calipari, regarded as a master motivator, has done one of his greatest jobs with his newest big man.
Harrellson logged 35 minutes on Saturday afternoon in Kentucky’s 71-63 victory over West Virginia that sent the Wildcats back into the Sweet 16. He finished with 15 points for the second straight game (he also had 15 points and 10 rebounds against Princeton) and eight boards, and delivered the game’s critical play with a little more than five minutes left.
There was Harrellson grabbing an offensive rebound, missing the putback, tipping it to himself and then finishing. The ultimate toughness play for a team that has been criticized for lacking toughness much of this season.
Minutes later, Harrellson was down the end of the bench, getting stitched up after suffering a gash above his eye – courtesy of West Virginia’s Casey Mitchell.
It matches the black eye he took in the SEC title game against Florida.
“I told our trainer, ‘Just put a headband on me. I need to go back out there.’ ”
Instead, he returned with a large bandage across his head, then helped Kentucky hold on for the win – one that sends the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 and a likely matchup with No. 1 overall seed Ohio State.
“He’s a hell of a player,” West Virginia big man Cam Thoroughman said of Harrellson after the game. “Without him, they’re hurting. He makes them go.”
“I never imagined I’d be the type of player I am,” Harrellson confessed.
One that Calipari can’t live without.
Harrellson initially signed with Western Illinois out of high school, but wound up going to junior college for one season in order to get out of his letter-of-intent.
“Someone told him he was a high-major player,” former Western Illinois coach Derek Thomas said of why Harrellson went the junior-college route.
Harrellson chose Kentucky over numerous Big Ten programs. For a while, it appeared his college career in Lexington would prove that he really wasn’t a “high-major” talent.
But that’s all in the past. Jorts, as he’s affectionately called in Lexington because of his excessive jean shorts collection, has become the team’s most indispensible player.
And he still gives much of the credit to Gillispie. “I still talk to him,” he said of Gillispie. “Every coach is different … he helped make me to the player I am today.”