By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky is going to have something next year that John Calipari has never had — a point guard experienced running his system.
With Friday’s announcement by twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison that they would return to UK for their sophomore seasons rather than enter the NBA draft, Calipari will have a point guard in Andrew Harrison who started 39 games last season and averaged 10.9 points and 4.0 assists per game. More importantly, he handed out three or more assists in seven of UK’s nine postseason games and he had a brilliant 20-point effort to help knock off previously unbeaten Wichita State in the NCAA tourney.
Calipari has used John Wall, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague, Ryan Harrow and Andrew Harrison to run the point in his five seasons at UK. All were true freshmen except Harrow, a transfer from North Carolina State who did have a redshirt season to learn the offense but was a major disappointment during UK’s 2012-2013 NIT season.
Now Calipari can turn the team over to Andrew Harrison. He’ll have his brother, who started 40 games last year and hit monster 3-point shots in consecutive wins over Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in NCAA play, back. He’ll have centers Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee back. He’ll have forward Alex Poythress back. Throw in four star recruits — point guard Tyler Ulis, two guard Devin Booker and big men Karl Towns Jr. and Trey Lyles — along with returning in-state sophomores Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins and Calipari will have his deepest, most experienced team at UK for Andrew Harrison to lead.
Kentucky will return 67 percent of its assists (300), 65 percent of minutes played, 59 percent of its scoring (1,773) and 54 percent of its rebounds (872) from its Final Four squad.
“Now it is a matter of him mastering the position instead of having to learn to play it,” said Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy. “We talked all last year about the need for him to control the game. Now he’ll have a better handle on what that means. I think he understands that better now.
“We have all seen sophomores get frustrated. It is not a straight line up as a sophomore, either. Just because you are a sophomore does not mean every game will be a boquet of roses, but he will now know what works and what doesn’t work. He will have different plans and different player that he can use what he knows instead of relying on being better athletically and maybe just getting a step and making a play. Now he can think pass and setting up teammates.”
There’s also another big plus for the Harrisons — they will be at UK all summer to work out and learn from Calipari, including a likely summer exhibition trip with their new teammates. Last summer the Harrisons did not get to UK for the summer term and were not able to start working out with teammates — or coaches — until they started school in late August.
DeCourcy thinks the Harrisons made a wise decision. While some mock drafts had one or both as possible late first-round picks, other mock drafts had them as second-round choices even after their impressive play in the NCAA Tournament.
“The Harrisons probably would be in the middle of the first round in terms of potential, but no one is seeing that now. I have never believed it was a good idea to sell yourself short of your potential and that’s what they likely would have done if they left UK. I think they made a great decision for them and Kentucky,” DeCourcy said.
ESPN college basketball analyst admits he was a bit surprised with the Harrisons’ decision, but he thinks they did the right thing.
“I am intrigued now to see how the Harrison kids build off the momentum from the end of the year,” Vitale said. “They both had an up and down year. Now I think we will see the real Harrisons that we saw at the end of the year on a consistent basis. We saw then how talented they are and how good they can be.”
Maybe that still wasn’t good enough for NBA scouts, but remember that Aaron Harrison Sr. said from the time his sons signed with Kentucky that staying more than one year was fine with him. The family is financially sound and Harrison Sr. said there was no pressure on his sons to go to the NBA — a message he reminded them of before the start of NCAA play.
And while many are already wondering how the team chemistry might be on a team with nine McDonald’s All-American plus Cauley-Stein, a potential lottery pick if he had opted for the draft this year, remember that Ulis’ father, James, has said for months that he would happy if the Harrisons stayed at UK.
“Tyler is about the team and wants to play with great players,” James Ulis said in January. “There will always be great players at Kentucky or any high-level college program. Tyler will play whatever role he has. He can’t worry about who is there or not there. If he plays like he can, he’ll get to play and that’s what coach Calipari told him.”
That’s what Calipari will be able to tell a lot of players next year. Play to your potential and get on the court. Slack off, lose focus or make constant mistakes and take a seat. That’s the luxury he’ll have with an experienced point guard in Andrew Harrison and proven second guard in Aaron Harrison that he would not have had if the Harrisons had not returned.