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By CHRIS DUNCAN
HOUSTON (AP) Ã¢â‚¬â€ Josh Teater is a die-hard Kentucky fan and John Rollins is the only VCU graduate on the PGA Tour. Both have tickets to Saturday’s Final Four games Ã¢â‚¬â€ Butler-VCU and Connecticut-Kentucky Ã¢â‚¬â€ at Reliant Stadium, about 25 miles from the course where the Houston Open is being played. Teater had a 65 Thursday and Rollins a 66. Leader Jimmy Walker shot a 63.
And both are hoping they have a tough decision to make on Monday Ã¢â‚¬â€ fly to Augusta to get ready for the Masters or stay in Houston an extra day to see their team play for a national championship.
“I don’t want to cross a bridge that I haven’t gotten to,” Teater said. “If it comes to that, I’ll probably stay for the game. But Monday night, it would be nice to be there, celebrating with everybody else.”
Teater wore a blue shirt and a white belt with a “UK” logo on his belt buckle during his round. He went to Morehead State in Kentucky, but grew up rooting for the Wildcats.
“I’ve been a fan since I could walk and talk,” Teater said. “It goes back as far as I go back.”
Rollins’ connection to VCU is more personal. The Richmond native is a longtime friend of Athletic Director Norwood Teague and has built a friendship with Rams coach Shaka Smart, who’s played in Rollins’ charity golf event the past two years.
Rollins has missed three cuts in his last five starts, and says he’s drawing inspiration from VCU’s surprising run.
“This could be exactly what I needed for my golf game,” Rollins said. “This could be something that I need to kind of get a little bit of a spark under me to get me going and just kind of maybe wake me up or whatever.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
HOUSTON Ã¢â‚¬â€ DeAndre Liggins is as fearless when it comes to speaking his mind as he is on the basketball court.
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why the University of Kentucky junior was not afraid to say what no one else really has as UK prepares to play Connecticut here Saturday night in the Final Four.
Liggins started by elaborating on teammate Brandon KnightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s comment on Tuesday that UK was not as good early in the season as the players thought and that likely led to several of the WildcatsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ eight losses.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think that was part of it, but we did not share the ball, either,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Liggins here Thursday. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Everybody wanted to get their shots and points.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Notice Liggins said Ã¢â‚¬Å“everybodyÃ¢â‚¬Â and included himself in the problem.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s got to be a team game. Since then, we have played like that,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said.
Kentucky lost four freshmen Ã¢â‚¬â€ John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton Ã¢â‚¬â€ to the NBA as first-round draft picks off the 35-3 and Elite Eight team from last year. This is where Liggins went publicly that no one connected with the team really has before.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s freshmen were great freshmen, but we had too many egos (on the team). Everybody wanted to be the man. This year we all know our roles and what we have to do to win,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We play great defense. Everybody is playing good right now. Everybody is coming along and contributing, even (backup center) Eloy (Vargas). We all know what it takes to win and do it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Perhaps that is why Kentucky coach John Calipari said the two Ã¢â‚¬Å“heroesÃ¢â‚¬Â on the team were freshmen Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb because both have accepted somewhat different roles during UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s current 10-game win streak.
Calipari noted that Jones took 44 shots in three games in the Maui Invitational when UConn pounded the Cats in the title game in November. In four NCAA games, he has 33 shots.
LambÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s playing time has dipped slightly because Liggins not only has become a lockdown defender, but heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also making better decisions with the ball and knocking off shots at a high rate.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Both Doron and Terrence can go for 25 (points), and they have done it,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But we have good kids who respect each other and understand the bigger picture. Both Doron and Terrence understand that my role is not as important as the team.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Junior Darius Miller says UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s freshmen Ã¢â‚¬â€ Brandon Knight, Jones and Lamb Ã¢â‚¬â€ are just Ã¢â‚¬Å“different personalitiesÃ¢â‚¬Â from last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s star-studded freshman class.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“These guys have different personalities and are a different group of guys. We still have a lot of fun,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
Miller acknowledged that this teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ego might not be as big compared to a year ago because UK has lost eight times this season compared to only two going into last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s postseason play.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“At the beginning of the season we thought we could just win and be more successful without doing all the things we are now,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We thought we could just go out and play because of the names on our team. It came back to bite us. We came out lackadaisical. Once we bought into the system, we started doing better.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Miller said he learned leadership skills he has used this season the previous two years from Patrick Patterson, who was also a first-round draft choice and now plays for the Houston Rockets here.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“When I first came here he helped me the whole year and we had a tough year. He never got down on anybody or own himself even in our NIT year. He helped me through a lot of stuff and our team through a lot of adversity,Ã¢â‚¬Â Miller said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He kept his head up and just kept playing and I try to take after him. I am really close to him and look up to him because he took me under his wing.
Miller says he not only feels like Patterson is still part of the team, but thinks the other players off last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team are, too.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think they are all part of the team still. They talk to us and ask how we are doing and keep up with us. We talk to them a lot. They tell us just not to settle for being here. They want us to win it all.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Calipari says he knows UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s five first-round draft picks from last year are being Ã¢â‚¬Å“teasedÃ¢â‚¬Â because this team is in the Final Four and they were not.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But this is not bittersweet. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a different team. That is over. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve really enjoyed this ride,Ã¢â‚¬Â the UK coach said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This team went from me dragging them to them dragging me along.Ã¢â‚¬Â
No one has pulled harder than Liggins, who admits he learned from watching last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s talented team play.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“But we also know at times last year not everybody quite bough into everything like we have this year and thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why we probably have been able to do more than anyone expected,Ã¢â‚¬Â Liggins said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We had five guys that left for the NBA and no one saw us in this predicament. They all doubted us. It feels great now, just like a dream.Ã¢â‚¬Â
HOUSTON (AP) – Connecticut was supposed to be too young, Kentucky too immature, Butler too old news and Virginia Commonwealth too far off the radar.
This is some kinda Final Four, huh?
After two weeks of games even the most astute prognosticators couldn’t have predicted, we’re finally at a Final Four unlike any other.
After all those brackets around the country hit the shredder, Kentucky and Connecticut will play in the blue blood bracket, while Butler and VCU face off in the up-and-comers division. Winners get a chance at the really big stage at really big Reliant Stadium.
Whatever happens, it’s sure to go down as one of the more memorable NCAA tournaments in history. Heck, it already has been.
So, to get you geared up, we’ve pulled together a little something that’s part history lesson, part rundown of this year’s teams and, hopefully, an entertaining look at this are-these-really-the-teams foursome.
In honor of underdogs Butler and VCU getting to the Final Four, we’d thought it’d be interesting to look back at some of the all-time upset teams in NCAA tournament history:
- North Carolina State, 1983. Lorenzo Charles dunking, Jim Valvano running, ‘Pack beats Phi Slamma Jamma. Doesn’t get much better than that.
- Indiana State, 1979. So what if Magic and Michigan State took down the Sycamores? What Larry Bird and his batch of underlings did was incredible stuff.
- George Mason, 2006. The trendsetter for the current mid-major runs. The Patriots took down big boys Michigan State, North Carolina and No. 1 overall seed UConn to get to the Final Four.
- Butler, 2010. The Bulldogs set their own standard just last year, coming within a nearly-banked-in halfcourt shot by Gordon Hayward of becoming the ultimate Cinderella against Duke.
- Villanova, 1985. First year of the 64-team field and the Wildcats made it a memorable one, becoming the highest seed to win a national championship as a No. 8.
- Louisiana State, 1986. First No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four.
33-5-11 – Age in years, months and days of Butler’s Brad Stevens, making him the second-youngest coach to reach the Final Four since 1972 (Bob Knight, 32-4-29).
3 – Number of No. 11 seeds to reach the Final Four: LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006, VCU this year.
5 – NCAA tournament games won by VCU, most ever to reach the Final Four.
14 – Final Four appearances by Kentucky, eight more than the other three teams combined.
19 – Games decided by three points or fewer in this year’s NCAA tournament, tied for second behind the 24 in 1990 for most since the field expanded to 64 teams.
26 – Combined seeds of Connecticut (three), Kentucky (four), Butler (eight) and VCU (11), highest in Final Four history. The previous high was 22 in 2000.
40 – Games played by VCU and Connecticut (once they play Saturday), matching the modern-day (since 1948) record, set seven previous times.
UConn’s Kemba Walker has put on a virtuoso performance, not just in the NCAA tournament, but also in the Big East tournament. He may be a slender 6 feet 1, but he has carried the Huskies through nine straight elimination games.
In honor of his play, here are a few other impressive one-man shows through the years:
- Stephen Curry, Davidson, 2008. The king of mid-major mayhem.
- Danny Manning, Kansas, 1988. The Jayhawks were known as Danny and the Miracles, but they might be considered The Untouchables when it comes to one leading the many in NCAA tournament history.
- Larry Bird, Indiana State, 1979. Larry Legend could have led Moe and Curly to the title game the way he was playing.
- Bill Bradley, Princeton, 1965. Led the unheralded Tigers to the Final Four, set an NCAA tournament record with 58 points against Wichita State in the third-place game.
- Bill Walton, UCLA, 1973. Big Red had some help but was as dominating as perhaps anyone in NCAA tournament history, capping it with 44 points in the title game.
- Jerry West, West Virginia, 1959. He set an NCAA tournament record while averaging 32 points and took the no-name Mountaineers into the title game against California.
- Lew Alcindor, UCLA, 1967. The man who would later become Kareem helped the Bruins set a tournament record for average margin of victory on their way to 10 straight Final Four wins.
- Bill Russell, San Francisco, 1956. Twenty-six points, 27 rebounds in the title game alone.
- Austin Carr, Notre Dame. 1970. Just three games, but went for 61, 52 and 45. Nice.
DID YOU KNOW?
Butler is the first Division I school from Indiana to reach consecutive Final Fours. Five-time national champion Indiana, Purdue and Notre Dame had never done it.
Kentucky coach John Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only coaches to lead three different schools to the Final Four. Calipari also took Massachusetts and Memphis, while Pitino did it with Providence, Kentucky and Louisville.
The Horizon League (Butler 2010-11) joins the Big West (UNLV 1990-91), Missouri Valley (Cincinnati 1961-62) and West Coast (San Francisco 1955-56) conferences as the only non-BCS conferences to send a member to consecutive Final Fours.
All four of UConn’s Final Four appearances (1999, 2004, 2009, 2011) have gone through the NCAA tournament’s West regional.
Butler is one of eight teams to reach the Final Four a year after losing in the national title game, joining Ohio St. (1962), North Carolina (1969), North Carolina (1982), Houston (1984), Duke (1991), Michigan (1993), Kentucky (1998).
UConn’s men’s and women’s teams have reached the Final Four in the same season for the third time. Only six other schools have done it, none more than once.
This year’s tournament marks the first time since 1983 that the Final Four teams have winning streaks of at least five games. This year’s schools have streaks of 13 (Butler), nine (Connecticut), nine (Kentucky) and five (VCU). In 1983, Houston had won 25 straight, Louisville 16, North Carolina State eight and Georgia seven.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
By LARRY VAUGHT
HOUSTON Ã¢â‚¬â€ NCAA president Mark Emmert managed to get in a few jabs at Kentucky even though he was only answering direct questions put to him at the Final Four here today. Here are a few things I thought you might find particularly amusing, frustrating, entertaining, perplexing or a combination of all.
Q. I read in USA Today that you personally received threats from Kentucky fans. Can you talk about the nature of the threats and how you feel about that.
PRESIDENT MARK EMMERT: I can’t really quote them without having them bleeped out (smiling). We received enough communication that it was sufficient cause for people who worry about that to add additional security. I’m not sure how I personally react to that. Obviously it’s not something that you like or enjoy. I most certainly appreciate passionate fans. The last thing you want is people not to be passionate about sports. But we do have to be careful that they don’t become the cause or the excuse for, rather, repugnant behavior. That’s true everywhere.
Q. The NBA lockout coming up, one thing they may discuss is a change in making players stay in college two years before going to the NBA. How concerned are you about these one-and-done kids using college basketball just to get to the NBA and only staying there for a year? Does that concern you at all?
PRESIDENT MARK EMMERT: Well, first of all, I don’t want to, nor do I have a role, nor does the NCAA have a role, in the labor negotiations between those two bodies. As you’re well aware, the so-called one-and-done rule is embodied in their Collective Bargaining Agreement. So my comments shouldn’t have any bearing on any of that.
I’m in favor of anything that encourages people to stay in college. If there’s changes that encourage students to stay in school, develop and grow, that’s great. The so-called one-and-done phenomenon I think has taken on a bigger-than-life I guess position in people’s minds about collegiate basketball.
There were last year, I don’t know, 14 or something like that, 14 out of 5500 Division I basketball players, there were 14 one-and-dones.
Back to the question of what’s the perspective on that and the perceptions of the public out there. They would say, All the kids are one-and-done, when in fact it was 14 or 15 young men that did it.
I would very much like to not have that become the image of intercollegiate basketball, even though there are some that do that, which is fine right now under our rules and the way we play the game. But I’d certainly like to have kids stay in college and prepare themselves for the rest of their lives.
Q. A lot more employees coming forward saying they knew about violations prior to. Are there any second thoughts about letting the Ohio State players play in a Bowl game?
PRESIDENT MARK EMMERT: I’m not going to comment on, nor should I comment on, any specific cases. The fact is that our staff does an exceptional job, in my opinion, of getting the facts they have at hand, and then making thoughtful judgments about it along with their work with their committees.
In that case, everyone made the best judgment they could with the information that was at hand. I supported them.
Q. You talked about athletics being a part of the college experience. At Kentucky, the coach makes several million dollars a year. Staff and faculty haven’t had a raise in three years. Just wondering how comfortable you are with that?
PRESIDENT MARK EMMERT: Well, I’ve always found the entire labor market in most places a bit hard to comprehend. If I were king of the universe, I’d make sure teachers and nurses were paid a lot are than they are.
We respond to labor markets as we find them, not as we create them. The fact is that basketball coaches at high-profile programs, like a number of other professions, are highly sought after and highly compensated positions. It’s a very competitive labor market out there. Every college and university has to make a decision about what every one of their employees is worth.
Kentucky and a number of other universities have decided that their coaches deserve to be well-compensated, that that’s a good investment for the institution, and I’m not second-guessing them.
She still considers Josh Harrellson a Ã¢â‚¬Å“special kidÃ¢â‚¬Â and couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be prouder of the way his basketball career has flourished this year at Kentucky.
Yet middle school teacher April Horst remembers much more about Harrellson than just his athletic skills from her time with him during his teen-age years in St. Charles, Mo.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I’ve known Josh since he was in eighth grade, so probably about nine years. In eight grade he was a fun, very energetic kid. And goodness, that boy was social,Ã¢â‚¬Â she said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He was friends with everyone! At times I had to seat him by my desk just to keep an eye on his talking, but it wasn’t in an intentionally disruptive way. He just couldn’t seem to stop himself from socializing.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“In eighth grade he was already taller than the other boys, and I don’t think he was quite sure what to do with all that height.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Horst says HarrellsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s engaging personality that has transformed him into a UK fan favorite was evident early.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Yes, he was goofy and outgoing way back then. It’s almost like he couldn’t help himself from getting to know other people, even during class time. He is genuinely interested in other people and loves to entertain others. Basketball is just another outlet for that desire to entertain,Ã¢â‚¬Â she said.
Horst, who is now a communication arts and English teacher as well as fall varsity cheer coach at Timberland High School, says HarrellsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“endearing personalityÃ¢â‚¬Â was the one thing she remembers best about Harrellson as he gets set to play against Connecticut in the Final Four Saturday night in Houston.
Here are insights HarrellsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s former middle school teacher shared:
Question: What do you remember best about Josh Harrellson?
Horst:Ã‚Â Ã¢â‚¬Å“Josh has such an endearing personality. It’s hard not to love him once you know him. I really have never seen him being disrespectful to another person, and I knew him through all his years in high school, too. During Josh’s senior year he came to my classroom two days a week to mentor my eighth-grade students. They really looked up to him, as he was a big basketball star over at the high school, but he made them all feel instantly at ease. They loved having him in their classroom.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Question: Do you still follow his athletic career now?
Horst: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I have followed Josh’s basketball career since he left high school, especially since he started at UK. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and I talk about him to my current students to show them that they really can accomplish anything they set their minds to! He is an inspiration to them.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Question: How big a surprise has his play been to you this year?
Horst: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Honestly, I am not at all surprised by how well he has been playing this year. I’ve known it was in him all along, and I saw his power during his junior and senior years in high school. To me, the big surprise is how little playing time he had before this year. Somebody was overlooking a great talent, and I’m so happy Josh has been given the opportunity to prove that this year.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Question: What has been the reaction among those of you who knew Josh years ago to his play this year?
Horst: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Those of us who have known Josh for years and watched him play through high school are proud beyond words. He did great things for the St. Charles High basketball program, but more importantly, he is a great kid. His character and determination are why he is so deserving of all this success. It couldn’t have happened to a better kid, and that makes witnessing his success that much sweeter.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Question: What kind of student was he?
Harrellson: Ã¢â‚¬Å“Josh was always a decent student. He didn’t get straight A’s, but he kept his grades up. It’s hard to remember the specifics from nine years ago, but I remember the top students and those who struggled. Josh was neither of those. He was just a fun kid to have in class Ã¢â‚¬â€ one that always kept me on my toes and knew how to make me laugh. Even without all this success, Josh was one of those special kids that I will remember forever.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Question: How proud are you to know what he’s done and now he is headed to the Final Four?
Horst: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I always refer to my students as my babies, and I really could not be more proud of this one! That pride is intensified by the fact that he really is such an outstanding young man; he works so hard for and deserves all of this attention.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I watched him lead his high school team to the Missouri High School Final Four, and now I’ve watched him do the same thing at the national level. During his senior year I sent him to make a copy of something for me, and he came back with a copy of his hand. He signed it and gave it to me. I still have that piece of paper; I knew this kid was going places! It’s about time that the rest of the country notices him!Ã¢â‚¬Â
Welcome back to the party, Kentucky.
A regular-attendee at the Final Four for a three-year stretch from 1996-98, the Wildcats punched their first ticket to the national semifinals for the first time since 1998 following a 76-69 triumph over North Carolina Sunday in the East Region semifinals.
The victory over the Tar Heels helped ease the disappointment of last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s squad, which lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight, turning a season of hope into immediate disappointment. This yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team returned the program to national prominence and came out of the blue.
Not that last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s squad, which featured five first-round picks was better, this team overcame the odds, making the feat just as sweet.
However, it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t easy. Moments after arriving home from Atlanta after winning its second consecutive Southeastern Conference Tournament title, Kentucky watched as Kansas, Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Duke received the four top seeds for the Big Dance. League foe Florida, a team the Cats had defeated twice in a two-week period during the final month of the regular-season, received a two seed, adding more frustration in the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s search for respect.
Instead of pouting, the Cats rolled up their sleeves and simply took care of business. Kentucky survived a close call against Princeton, avenged last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s loss to West Virginia, ousted No. 1 seed Ohio State before defeating North Carolina to complete a successful run through the East Region.
A season of uncertainty turned into promise, proving anything is possible when a team catches fire when it matters the most.
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why Kentucky will win its eighth national championship Monday night. However, in order for that to happen, the Wildcats need to duplicate the two performances it had against Ohio State and North Carolina last weekend.
The first order of business is defense. As the clichÃƒÂ© goes, defense wins championships and Kentucky is one of the top defensive teams remaining in the tournament. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no reason this trend will change this late in the season with a national championship hanging in the balance. DeAndre Liggins has been providing the key stops for the Cats in the postseason, while the others have followed. An overlooked statistic on the defensive end is blocked shots, and the Cats had 11 of those in the two-point victory over the Buckeyes last weekend.
Darius Miller, Liggins and Josh Harrellson have been giving the Cats consistent veteran leadership in the Big Dance, and the consistency of all three players is one reason Kentucky has a big chance to finish the season without a loss. Miller, Liggins and Harrellson have been through the wars and it has showed this season. Harrellson hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t backed down from anyone and has emerged as one of the top inside players in the country. HarrellsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s desire to win has been contagious, and the Kentucky senior simply has refused to quit and the other players have followed his lead.
Brandon Knight has hit two game-winning baskets in two of the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s four victories in the tournament and has emerged as the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s go-to player when the game is on the line. As Knight will tell you, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s failed when it comes to making game clinchers, but the freshman guard isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afraid to pull the trigger and isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afraid of failure. Knight is the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s floor general, not to mention one of its top threats from long range. Knight has progressed throughout the season and it has shown, especially during the last half of the season.
In addition to its defense, Kentucky has been shooting the ball in impressive fashion and connected on 18 shots from long range in the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wins over Ohio State and North Carolina. The Cats buried 12 shots from behind the arc in the seven-point victory over the Tar Heels, with Knight firing five of those treys. Kentucky has had balanced scoring to offset the teamÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s slim bench.
Finally, if things get close, the Wildcats have proven they can win when the game is on the line, reversing a trend that haunted the team during the regular season, especially against conference foes. That trait has led to a renewed confidence for a team that appears to be on the same page going into SaturdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s game against Connecticut. Kentucky has beaten seven of the eight teams it lost to this year, one more reason the Cats will defeat the Huskies on their way to the national championship.
By LARRY VAUGHT
No matter how well he plays or how focused he is on the court, thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still that playful, goofy side of Josh Harrellson that endears him to fans and teammates Ã¢â‚¬â€ and even coach John Calipari after his initial reaction to HarrellsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s preseason critical Twitter message of the coach that earned him extra running time.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“In 28 years, I have never seen it happen before with somebody doing what Josh has done,Ã¢â‚¬Â UK strength coach Rock Oliver, who used to work with the Cincinnati Bengals as well as UK basketball under Rick Pitino, said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I have never seen a guy change his body the way he did and change his game the way he did because he wanted to change. It has been miraculous.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Junior teammate Darius Miller says he always Ã¢â‚¬Å“had confidenceÃ¢â‚¬Â in Harrellson.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We just knew he needed to be more aggressive on the court and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s doing that. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think he would be all this with fans, but I knew he could be a great player and was a great kid. He is working so hard and it feeds on to games,Ã¢â‚¬Â Miller said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He talks some about how he didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t play last year, but he was not mad and that doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t matter this year. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s playing and helping a lot on offense and defense. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a big part of our team
Ã¢â‚¬Å“On the court, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s serious. Off the court, he will still play around. But he is focused on the court.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Harrellson left the SEC Tournament with a net around his neck. He did the same thing at the East Region.
He also threw the ball toward the top of the arena after fittingly grabbing the final rebound in the win over North Carolina.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know where it went but for the ball to be in my hands at the end of the game and all the stuff I have been through I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t ask for anything more than to watch the clock run out and know we were going to the Final Four,Ã¢â‚¬Â Harrellson said.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Cal is so happy and said he knew it all along. He had disbeliefs at times I am sure, but he is so happy for us. He loves this team and is so confident with us. He is looking forward to Houston.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Harrellson, who is looking forward to seeing ex-teammate Patrick Patterson of the Houston Rockets Ã¢â‚¬â€ Ã¢â‚¬Å“heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still my best friendÃ¢â‚¬Â Ã¢â‚¬â€ this weekend, expects a throng of Big Blue fans to be at the Final Four to inspire the team.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Our fans follow so much itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s never really neutral,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am definitely amazed how far we have come, and I know the fans are, too. Early in the season we definitely relied on the freshmen to carry the scoring and doing just about everything for the team, but me, Darius (Miller) and DeAndre (Liggins) have stepped up so much lately. It makes it so much easier for the freshmen to just play.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“A lot of people doubted us. I am sure even some of our own fans didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think we would make it where we are today. A lot of the fans knew we would, but a lot looked back and saw all the talent in the world on last yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s team that didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t make the Final Four. We had the most talented team in the NCAA and probably one of the most talented teams ever to play together, but I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think we had the same passion and desire this team does to come out and compete every game and never get behind or if we do just fight back and never give up. That separates last year from this year.Ã¢â‚¬Â
And it separates Harrellson from DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Patterson and Enes Kanter Ã¢â‚¬â€ all big-time players heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s played with or practiced with the last two seasons Ã¢â‚¬â€ because none of them played in a Final Four and Harrellson will.
By JONATHAN STARK
NICHOLASVILLE Ã¢â‚¬â€Ã‚Â ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no doubt that Jessamine County has been shaken up by Jarrod Polson first walking on at the University of Kentucky basketball program and then earning a scholarship.
People have followed his progress at UK this season, whether it be him pumping up his teammates from the bench or getting to play the final few minutes of blowout victories. PolsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s freshman season has taken him all over the map: Oregon, Maui,Ã‚Â North Carolina and the yearly tour of the southeast for conference play.
He played under the bright lights of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta at the SEC Tournament. He went to the warm temperatures of Tampa, Fla., for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and then the frigid cold of Newark, N.J., for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. This weekend, he will be with UK in Houston, Texas, for the Final Four.
Polson hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been alone during most of his travels. The average fan may not have the time or finances to make these treks, but PolsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s parents, George and Chrisi, have been on the road nearly as much as their son.
This past weekend, the Polsons were on hand to see the Wildcats take down No. 1 seed Ohio State Friday night and then rival UNC on Sunday in Newark.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just been beyond our expectations,Ã¢â‚¬Â George Polson said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“To put it in words is hard just because itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s every UK fanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s dream to just be in this.Ã¢â‚¬Â
As a parent to a UK basketball player, the emotional investment in the program is tenfold.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You absolutely cheer your heart and soul out. Just being from Kentucky, youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re rooting for the team, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s magnified on so many levels when you have a son playing,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said.
The Polson family drove up to Newark, N.J., for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight and plans on driving to Houston on Friday for the Final Four. They are hopeful to stay through the remainder of the tournament.
Players are given six tickets each to give to friends and family for SaturdayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s game against Connecticut. Jarrod will be cheered on in Houston by his parents, his two older brothers and two younger sisters.
In all the ruckus and celebration, Jarrod and his parents havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t had a chance to connect except through a few texts.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“(Jarrod) was just absolutely elated beyond belief,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“He texted us after the Ohio State game and said it was the best game heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ever been a part of. That was prior to the North Carolina game, and IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure he would say the same for that.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The turnaround in the UK basketball program over the past two seasons has happened very quickly. Many were expecting a Final Four trip in the near future, but many are surprised it happened this quickly and with this group of players.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I was teasing someone today that Jarrod seems to be the good luck charm wherever heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s at,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just a wonderful thing … I think there were kind of doubts about the team early because of the way they were playing … then it finally clicked going into the SEC tournament, and from there on it was like this was a different team. They finally got it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
PolsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s parents see every day the hard work and sacrifice their son puts in at practice. Many times he has come home bruised and bloodied.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“(Jarrod) comes home with battle scars a lot,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said. During practice, Jarrod has to match up against the likes of Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Jarrod has to literally bang up on those guys to try and simulate a game condition. He definitely has an impact on their game preparation.Ã¢â‚¬Â
During his senior year at West Jessamine, Polson and the Colts went to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row. After defeating Muhlenberg County, West advanced to the Elite Eight, where it lost to Shelby Valley 67-54. Polson left West as the schoolÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all-time leading scorer with 1,884 points. He also holds the state records for most free throws attempted and made in a game.
At West, he averaged 17.1 points a game and dished out 482 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three-point range.
His numbers at UK this season havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t been quite like other freshmen on the squad. Polson last saw action in the SEC title game against Florida, which the Cats won 70-54. He has seen time in 17 games this season, playing 31 total minutes, scoring six points and collecting two rebounds.
The staggering dropoff in stats and minutes may have affected some players and deterred their drive, but PolsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s father says heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been handling it well all season and there has been no dip in morale.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“(Jarrod) understands the whole situation and is not down at all,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
As a parent, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a bit more frustrating.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“When youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re up by 30 and thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s five minutes left, you want your kid out there. You want the other kids out there too, like Jon Hood and Stacey Poole. You want to see everyone get some time,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But at the same time, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re not the best coaches in world, just fans. You almost have to take yourself back a little bit and just let the coaches coach.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Just as the players have gelled together over the season, the parents have as well. Kentucky recruitment knows no bounds, having nearly had a Turkish player on the team. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not as easy to get to games for some as it is for the Polsons.
However, in the past few weeks with the postseason tournaments going on, more parents are getting to see their children. The Polsons have become friendly with the parents of Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and Hood to name a few. In the past few weeks, the families of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Poole have joined the ever-growing group, too.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You get really close to these parents and families because youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re with them a lot,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“When weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re in Houston, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll all be staying in the same hotel.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Polsons know that JarrodÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s college decision has had an impact on the rest of Jessamine County.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This has really been an impact on Jessamine County Ã¢â‚¬â€ the schools, the kids. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s like everyone has adopted Jarrod as their own,Ã¢â‚¬Â George said.
But for the Polson family, their world gets turned upside down with every UK win.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Terrence Jones was trying to describe his feelings when teammate DeAndre Liggins hit a clutch 3-point goal in the final minute Sunday that made sure Kentucky beat North Carolina to advance to the Final Four.
However, JonesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ explanation for that shot probably also perfectly summed up what coach John Calipari has been able to do with this team and why the Cats have gone from a team that couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win a close game to a team now favored to win the national championship.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have a lot of players that can knock down shots and heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s one of them. Him just having the heart to take it and make it is the difference between how we are now and two months ago,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Jones about Liggins. Ã¢â‚¬Å“A lot of guys would not have taken that shot, but now everybody is playing with so much confidence and it is fun.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Yes, winning is fun. But that heart is what has made this team different and it is why this has been such a magnificent coaching job by Calipari even though heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll likely get little credit nationally at the Final Four. Instead, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll again be blasted because both Massachusetts and Memphis, two teams he also took to the Final Four, had to vacate those appearances for NCAA infractions. Never mind that Calipari was not implicated in any wrongdoing. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s still enough to tarnish his reputation nationally and keep many from appreciating what heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s done this year.
Just ask Jones, who has gone from a freshman who took 10 or more shots in 17 of UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s first 18 games to a player who has taken 10 shots in only one of four NCAA games.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is the type team we have now. Everybody is playing with confidence and is not afraid to shoot. Everybody is going to have a time to go on a streak because we have a lot of dudes that can score the ball on this team. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just great to have that balance,Ã¢â‚¬Â Jones said.
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also great to have a coach who has developed that balance. Going into the season, no one could have thought Josh Harrellson would be the player he is. But donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t forget about LigginsÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ improved offensive play. Or the consistency and clutch playmaking Darius Miller has provided.
Remember when Brandon Knight missed game-winning shots? Now heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Mr. Clutch for the Cats.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I told those guys when he (Calipari) first came here that he would take you to the rainbow. He just did it,Ã¢â‚¬Â UK strength coach Rock Oliver, a long-time Calipari friend, said after SundayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s win over North Carolina put UK in the Final Four. Ã¢â‚¬Å“This is maybe the best coaching job anybody has ever done period. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unbelievable what he has done.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“For once I am speechless. There is not a group that deserves it more and I was here when we had Final Four teams (under Rick Pitino). This group deserves everything they get because John has them on the brink of greatness.Ã¢â‚¬Â
HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s right. The same team that lost on the road at Mississippi and Arkansas Ã¢â‚¬â€ a win that couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t even save coach John PelphreyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s job at Arkansas Ã¢â‚¬â€ is now on the brink of winning a national title. If it can avenge an earlier loss to Connecticut and then beat the Butler-Virginia Commonwealth survivor, UK will have its first championship Ã¢â‚¬â€ and most unlikely Ã¢â‚¬â€ since 1998.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s great to be part of this tradition, and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s surprising UK has not even been to the Final Four since 1998,Ã¢â‚¬Â Jones said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“There have been some close calls, but this is a tough tournament. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to get to the Final Four. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not an easy task. There are a lot of great teams and it just takes one tough night and your season ends.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Coach Cal was always believing in us. He was the first one to believe in us. The whole year he felt we would be in this situation. Just having coach Cal believe in us and mentoring us and getting us through everything is why we are here now.Ã¢â‚¬Â
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s doubtful you can find any Kentucky fan complaining now because UK didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t win the Southeastern Conference championship Ã¢â‚¬â€ remember the uproar when Calipari said playing well in March meant more to him than winning the SEC title. Instead, Calipari used the painful road losses in conference play as teaching tools to get the Cats back to the promised land.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This team is really good. You are supposed to do it at Kentucky. At the other two schools (UMass and Memphis), you are not supposed to do it. As a matter of fact, you are supposed to do more, from what they tell me at Kentucky,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am just trying to coach these kids. My goal as a coach every year I have coached is that I want my team playing its best basketball in March. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I do.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“What I’ve learned at an early age is just to continue to make this about these kids, to continue to try to make kids better, and then have them buy into team whether it’s team defense or being unselfish. But it still comes back to how do I get individual players better? Not just one or two guys, but the entire team. How does each individual improve? How do they feel unleashed?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t practice long at the end of the season. An hour practice, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s it. If they are not in shape by then, I have not done my job. If they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know what to do, I have not done my job. I want them fresh and having fun. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I try to do. If thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s good enough to get us to advance, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fine. If not, we donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t.Ã¢â‚¬Â
This year he certainly unleashed his Cats at just the right time and turned a good team into a potential national championship team.
By LARRY VAUGHT
After Kentucky secured its first Final Four berth since 1998 by first knocking off No. 1 Ohio State and then holding off North Carolina , Doug Harrellson couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t control his emotions any longer.
He was in the front row at the Prudential Center with tears of pride streaming down his face as he watched his son, new Kentucky folk hero Josh Harrellson, celebrate with teammates on the court and embrace his new stardom.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be more wonderful,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Doug Harrellson. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am so happy for that young man and this basketball team that it is just unbelievable.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Unbelievable? ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more than that. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unimaginable both for the Wildcats and Harrellson Ã¢â‚¬â€ remember a few weeks ago when the concern was UK would not get a bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and now the Cats are the favorite to win the national title Ã¢â‚¬â€ as they prepare to play Connecticut Saturday night in Houston.
Last year Harrellson could have sat with me on media row. He played meaningless minutes Ã¢â‚¬â€ and still probably enjoyed that more than the humiliating year he suffered under coach Billy Gillispie when he transferred to UK two years ago. Now heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s averaging 7.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game with 33 steals and 57 blocked shots. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s shooting 61.4 percent from the field because he understands his role. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s even shown the ability in NCAA play to put the ball on the floor and score.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“If somebody is playing me too tight and I see a lane, I just try to drive it and get around him. And that helps out for my teammates because they don’t play me as tight and it is easier passes because they won’t come and guard me as tight,Ã¢â‚¬Â Harrellson said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“But it is totally different. Something I never thought I would be able to do. But we do a lot of stuff like that when I work out with (assistant coach) Kenny Payne before practice and stuff. We work a lot with taking people off the dribble and going through bumps and also do it in practice with the bigs. That’s why I am getting more confident doing it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In the four NCAA games, Harrellson is 25-for-33 from the field, has scored 59 points and has grabbed 36 rebounds. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s had two double-doubles, blocked six shots and made seven steals.
Outgoing UK President Lee Todd has become as big a Harrellson fan as anyone wearing blue and white.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Josh Harrellson has just been such a breath of fresh air. Patsy (my wife) and I have both enjoyed him. He is just a great kid. To see him even exceed his expectations on this team is really special,Ã¢â‚¬Â Todd said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I wish there was that national most improved player of the year because listening to what the (national) analysts have said about him there is no doubt he would be right up there with anybody in the country.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He really is what college athletics ought to be about. His story is one that shows you what coaching motivation, but also personal motivation, can really do to turn a career totally around. He could easily have been a fan favorite because he is a nice guy, but he has been a fundamental success story for this particular season and we would not be where we are without him.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Yet after UK beat No. 1 Ohio State and his son had 12 points and eight rebounds, there was Doug Harrellson making his way to Ellen Calipari, coach John CalipariÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wife, to hug and thank her.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Mrs. Calipari is a nice lady and I thanked her for what her, her husband and the coaching staff has done for Josh and this team to get where they are,Ã¢â‚¬Â Doug Harrellson said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They have done a lot. I owe everybody a lot. The coaching staff, Mrs. Calipari, all of them. They have worked really hard to get where they are and itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just a wonderful thing.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is very hard to imagine last year to this year. It is the difference between night and day and I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t express enough what this has meant. To have a young man of that caliber getting ready to cut that net down is fabulous. I love it. I am on the ride of my life.Ã¢â‚¬Â
And he means it.
Because of the unexpected travel demands to suddenly watch his son blossom from a bench player to an SEC standout to a potential professional player, Doug Harrellson has needed to travel more to games than he planned and he came with a cost he gladly paid.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I have already lost one job and got another one because they didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to work with me on my travel time, and you know what, I would do it all over again,Ã¢â‚¬Â Doug Harrellson said as he watched the net-cutting ceremony Sunday in New Jersey. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I would do the same thing again. There is no comparison to being here for my son, this basketball team and these people. It is wonderful.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I would do it all over again. I would not change a thing. It is just a fabulous ride. I will be in Houston and will have everybody I can bring with me.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The Kentucky senior is on the same Ã¢â‚¬Å“fabulous rideÃ¢â‚¬Â as his father and is enjoying the satisfaction his father feels as well.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“He is a fan favorite, too. I saw on Facebook that Doug Ã¢â‚¬ËœFreakinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Harrellson is the man. Everywhere I go with him, more people want pictures of him than me,Ã¢â‚¬Â Josh Harrellson laughed and said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am like, Ã¢â‚¬ËœWho is this guy?Ã¢â‚¬â„¢ I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think any other Wildcat family has become more popular than my dad so quickly. I am appreciative of all the support fans have shown me and him.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an ordinary guy. He wears a camouflage hat and drinks Busch (beer). That is what puts the hair on his face daily. Maybe we can do a commercial together with some Jorts (jean shorts) on and camouflage and going out there and playing with Big Foot or something.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Actually, Josh Harrellson might be able to take Big Foot based on the way he has transformed his body. HeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s quicker and leaner. But heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also meaner. Ask Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, who had a basketball thrown in his chest when Harrellson was saving a ball from going out of bounds. Ask North Carolina star Harrison Barnes, who saw HarrellsonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s wrath after he tripped him from behind as Harrellson was headed to the basket to score.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think it was intentional but the ref didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t call it. I got up quick and was heated, but I kept my cool. My teammates needed me. I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do nothing stupid. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve done enough of that already,Ã¢â‚¬Â Harrellson said.
And what about those stitches heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s played with over his eye that were due to come out Monday? Ã¢â‚¬Å“I am afraid I am going to have to take them out,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said Sunday. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Maybe I will put in some fake ones. Maybe I will get another one (cut). They have been good luck and I hate to see them go.Ã¢â‚¬Â