Harrellson rises from comic relief to cult figure

Kentucky center Josh Harrellson could hear the murmurs when the

NCAA ruled freshman big man Enes Kanter permanently ineligible in

January.

The thought was the Wildcats were done without the highly

recruited Kanter. That they couldn’t thrive relying on Harrellson,

a little-used reserve who played all of 88 minutes as junior, to

serve as their only post presence.

Harrellson tried not to take it personally. He knows better than

most how good Kanter is and even offered to give up his senior year

if it meant Kanter – sidelined for accepting improper benefits

while playing for a Turkish club team two years ago – could take

his place.

Though it was a heartfelt gesture, it had no bearing on Kanter’s

situation.

”I wanted him to play more than anybody,” Harrellson said.

”Well, maybe Coach (John Calipari) wanted him to play more.”

And the rest of one of college basketball’s most ardent fan

bases.

Harrellson was considered too goofy, too slow, too inconsistent

to be considered a legitimate threat at either end of the

floor.

This is the same kid who once skipped a game as a freshman in

high school to go deer hunting, who had his Twitter privileges

revoked by Calipari after expressing frustration over what he

considered a lack of respect from his coach.

Kanter’s nickname is ”the UnderKanter,” a twist on one of his

idols, professional wrestler ”The Undertaker.” Harrellson’s

nickname is ”Jorts,” a tribute to his affinity for knee-length

jean shorts that he likes to wear regardless of the sometimes

unpredictable Bluegrass weather.

Many felt there was no way the Wildcats could be considered a

legitimate Final Four threat with Harrellson as the enforcer. But

the end of Kanter’s season became the beginning of Harrellson’s

renaissance.

The player considered an afterthought in October is owning March

while leading the Wildcats to their first Final Four in 13 years.

Kentucky (29-8) plays Connecticut (30-9) in Houston on Saturday for

a spot in the national title game.

”When Josh heard Enes couldn’t play, he changed his

mentality,” said Kentucky guard DeAndre Liggins. ”He started to

do all his extra stuff to make him better.”

Technically, Harrellson didn’t have a choice. Calipari’s

punishment for Harrellson running off at the Twitter was to make

him run until he puked on the court. He ordered Harrellson to

endure grueling conditioning drills 30 minutes before each

practice.

Calipari was trying to get Harrellson to quit. Harrellson did

the opposite.

Suddenly the kid who admits he only picked up the game because

he was tall and good at it, but couldn’t play more than a handful

of minutes without asking to come out, was running the floor

alongside Calipari’s latest batch of McDonald’s All-Americans.

He scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a win over

Louisville on New Year’s Eve and led the Southeastern Conference in

rebounding, averaging 8.8 in league play.

Harrellson has been even better in the postseason, where he’s

averaging 12.8 points and 8.7 rebounds a game while holding his own

against some of the best post players in the country.

Battling against Kanter – who opted to serve as a student

assistant following his NCAA ban – in practice each day gave

Harrellson confidence he could hang with the best. Kanter held the

advantage early in the season, but their one-on-one battles aren’t

so lopsided anymore.

That confidence has allowed Harrellson to play with a

fearlessness he lacked during his first two years on campus after

transferring from Southwest Illinois College.

Harrellson simply refuses to back down from a challenge no

matter who he’s banging against.

The former Little League pitcher threw a fastball off Ohio State

freshman Jared Sullinger in the regional semifinals while falling

out of bounds. The play helped ignite the Wildcats to a 62-60 upset

and led Buckeyes coach Thad Matta to call Harrellson one of the

most underrated players in the country.

He was just as good in the regional final against North

Carolina. Harrellson finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, four

assists and two steals as the Wildcats moved on to the Final Four

for the first time since winning it all in 1998.

The Final Four is rarified air for a player who spent the first

three days of his high school career in St. Charles, Mo., standing

alone under a basket until he proved to coach Ben Owens he could

make one.

”He didn’t know what to do,” Owens said. ”He was extremely

confused. He couldn’t really dribble. He just didn’t have any

basketball sense in him, which is completely understandable.”

He didn’t have much common sense, either. Though he’d worked his

way into the starting lineup for Owens, the coach remembers one

Saturday when he hopped on the bus for a road game and Harrellson

was nowhere to be found.

”We get on the bus and I’m like, ‘Where’s Josh?’ and they’re

like, ‘We think he’s hunting,”’ Owens said.

It took Harrellson a few weeks to get back in Owens’ good

graces. He’s been there ever since. The coach expects to be in

Houston on Saturday when Kentucky continues its quest for an eighth

national title.

Harrellson isn’t quite as tight with Calipari, but they have won

each other’s respect. His play has served as an inspiration to his

teammates and proof to Calipari that no player is a lost cause.

”He’s been probably one of the things that’s keeping us in it

toward the end,” said Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight. ”He

shows that if you work hard … each and every day you can come and

get better.”

Harrellson has been good enough to make people stop asking about

Enes Kanter.

”A lot of people are happy now that he didn’t play,”

Harrellson said. ”I’ve taken full advantage of my opportunity and

done a lot of great things with it and I’m sure a lot of people are

happy now that he couldn’t play but I still wish he could

have.”