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By LARRY VAUGHT
Since losing at Florida and having starting center Nerlens Noel go down for the season with a knee-injury, Kentucky has had a lot happen. There was the 30-point loss at Tennessee on Feb. 16, hard-fought 74-70 win over Vanderbilt on Feb. 20 and dramatic 90-83 overtime victory over Missouri Feb. 23. Throw in an 85-55 victory over outmanned Mississippi State Wednesday night and UK has gone from a team on the verge of collapse to a team with a chance to contend for the Southeastern Conference title and NCAA Tournament bid.
“We had dirt thrown on us 10 days ago (at Tennessee). The coffin was nailed shut and the dirt was thrown on us,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Now all of a sudden we’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what’s just happened, in 10 days.’ And they’re feeling good about themselves. They should. I’m proud of them.”
He should be, especially when it comes to point guard Ryan Harrow. Remember him? He’s the player that went scoreless against Florida and Tennessee in the back-to-back losses. His play frustrated Calipari so much that he started Jarrod Polson over Harrow at Tennessee.
However, he had 19 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the field, seven rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in 30 minutes against Mississippi State. In UK’s three-game win streak, he’s averaging 15.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. Two of the three games he’s not had a turnover.
“Coach has said it the whole year: When Ryan plays aggressive and (not) passive, that brings our whole team up,” freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. “When he’s playing like that, it’s hard to beat us. He’s got everybody else going. His defense, it just lifts everybody else up. We run more. When he’s taking control, it’s just a good thing.”
Calipari said Harrow is back just “doing his job” and letting others do what they should be doing, an attitude the whole team has adopted.
“They’re holding each other accountable more. It’s less about me holding them accountable,” Calipari said.
“We just all got together and talked and said we needed to turn this around. We are starting to have fun and playing together better,” Harrow said after Wednesday’s win. “Everybody is happy and working hard and is more focused. Coach says we have our destiny in our own hands.”
Kentucky does. Florida leads the SEC at 12-3. Alabama and Kentucky are both 11-4 while Tennessee is 9-6. The top four SEC teams receive byes to the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. But if UK wins at Arkansas — which has lost just one home game this season — and at Georgia, it would host Florida March 9 with a chance to at least get a piece of the SEC title.
“We can win on the road,” Harrow said. “The last two (Florida and Tennessee) we were not mentally prepared to play. We just have to match their intensity, but we can win on the road.”
Of course, the better Harrow plays the easier that becomes — especially with the way he has been rebounding.
“The last two games it’s been really nice. He had five at halftime. He ends up with seven rebounds. That’s 15 rebounds in two games. It helps your (fast) break. It relieves pressures from our fours and fives,” Calipari said.
“Coach told us since Nerlens is out we just had to start rebounding more. All the guards just need to start rebounding more, especially with teams that shoot a lot of 3’s. The ball is going to fly out farther to where the point guards are at,” Harrow said.
Mississippi State coach Ricky Ray sees a maturing and improving Harrow.
“I actually had a chance to play against Ryan Harrow when he played at North Carolina State when he was a freshman and I was still (coaching) at Clemson. He has really evolved as a basketball player,” Ray said. “I know that when we were at Clemson, he struggled against our pressure at times, like most kids do as a freshman.
“You can tell he is maturing and trying to figure things out. I think he is a good basketball player and I think he just kind of had to find his way with all the scoring and all the different opportunities you have here at Kentucky to get the ball to different people.”
Whatever it took, Harrow once again seems to have found it before he disappeared at Florida and Tennessee.
And why has he bounced back — and UK not collapsed without Noel as it looked like the Cats would after the Tennessee loss?
“We are Kentucky. We are expected to win,” Harrow said. “We have to try and play like we should win every game. We have the talent to still compete and just have to keep believing that.”