Josh Harrellson's turnaround key to UK

  • Mark Schlabach [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | March 24, 2011

TAMPA, Fla. -- Kentucky coach John Calipari built back-to-back Sweet 16 teams by recruiting one-and-done players.

Josh Harrellson
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesJosh Harrellson has proved to be Kentucky's best post player in its run to the Sweet 16.

The Wildcats' most unlikely star was nearly a one-and-done player, but for entirely different reasons.

Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson, who scored 28 points in 22 games last season, has emerged as a major post presence for the No. 4-seeded Wildcats, who play No. 1 seed Ohio State in the East Regional semifinals in Newark, N.J., on Friday night.

In the Wildcats' first two NCAA tournament games last week, Harrellson had 30 points and 18 rebounds in victories over No. 13 seed Princeton and No. 5 seed West Virginia.

Over the last three weeks, Harrellson has looked like anything but the player who was overmatched and rarely used in his first two seasons at Kentucky and averaged 1.3 points in four minutes per game as a junior.

"When you watch a player like Josh, it's not me," Calipari said. "I don't have a magic wand."

While there might be something magical about the way Harrellson is finishing his college career, he reached this point through old-fashioned hard work and determination.

"I'm so happy for that young man," said Doug Harrellson, Josh's father. "I keep telling him, 'Nobody did this for you, son. You did it for yourself.'"

Now 275 pounds, the 6-foot-10 Harrellson lost weight and increased his stamina through a rigorous conditioning program this season. He's averaging 7.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in 28.1 minutes per game this season.

"What you try to do is talk to them about what they have to change to change the results of how they're playing, which means you've got to change your body sometimes," Calipari said. "Other times, you've got to change your mentality. Then the other thing is you've got to change your skill set. If you don't change, there's no way the end result is going to change. You're going to be the same player. He's changed all that."

While Harrellson would eventually realize a change was needed, others tried to force the issue on him.

Former Wildcats coach Billy Gillispie took extreme measures to motivate Harrellson. At halftime of UK's 77-64 loss at Vanderbilt on Feb. 17, 2009, Gillispie banished Harrellson to a bathroom stall in the Wildcats' locker room. After the game, Gillispie made Harrellson make the 200-mile drive back to Lexington riding in the team's equipment van.

Doug Harrellson, a construction worker in St. Charles, Mo., said his son didn't tell him about the Vanderbilt incident until earlier this season.

"He didn't tell me about it because he feared what repercussions he'd have after I got my hands on the coach," Doug Harrellson said. "I don't tolerate those things. That's unacceptable to me. I don't care who you are. As a parent, if you did that in this day and age, they'd throw you in jail. That's not motivation; that's motivating a kid to not want to do it."

Josh Harrellson
Kim Klement/US PresswireHarrellson has turned his game around and is averaging 15 points per game in the tournament.

Gillispie, who was fired at Kentucky after that season and was introduced as Texas Tech's coach Wednesday, didn't return several phone calls from ESPN.com. Josh Harrellson said he and Gillispie remain friends.

"Every coach has a different way of coaching," Harrellson said. "Bobby Knight's done different things. Every coach has a different way of teaching and coaching. [Gillispie] was trying to teach me to just come and play tough, and just trying to teach me a different way than I was used to learning."

Under Calipari last season, Harrellson could rarely get off the bench. With junior Patrick Patterson and freshman DeMarcus Cousins starting in the frontcourt, Harrellson played 88 minutes in 22 games.

Doug Harrellson said he could sense his son was disappointed with how things were turning out at Kentucky.

"I just told him to stick it out and his time would come," he said. "I told him there was nothing he could do about it and to just keep working hard."

Prior to this season, Calipari still wasn't confident Harrellson could become an SEC-caliber post player. The Wildcats signed freshman Enes Kanter, a 6-foot-11 center from Turkey, who is projected as a potential top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft. But the NCAA on Jan. 8 ruled Kanter permanently ineligible for receiving more than $33,000 in impermissible benefits while playing for the Turkish club team Fenerbahce two years ago.

So Calipari was stuck with Harrellson playing in the paint this season, whether he liked it or not.

"I don't think they ever thought I could be the player I am," Harrellson said. "They probably never thought I'd play significant minutes like I do now, but I changed their confidence in me. I showed them what I could do and they started having more confidence in me."

Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua said Harrellson had to get serious about playing basketball.

"We thought he was skilled," Antigua said. "We thought if he got serious about it, he could contribute. We're just excited and happy he did."

Harrellson credits UK assistant coach Kenny Payne with helping him improve his conditioning. After a much-publicized Twitter incident last fall, in which Harrellson criticized Calipari, Harrellson was ordered to run sprints for 30 days. Harrellson kept running and running, and Payne was there to supervise him every day.

"His last name, that's what it is -- pain," Harrellson said. "He does whatever he wants to do to you. I'm in the best shape I've ever been in my life."

With the improved phyisical condition, Harrellson's game has never been better. His biggest challenge might come Friday against Ohio State. Harrellson figures to carry much of the load in trying to contain freshman Jared Sullinger, who is averaging 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds.

Doug Harrellson is confident his son will be ready for the challenge.

"It was pretty hard for him to get to the point where he is right now," Doug Harrellson said. "It's been a really rough road. He's had to go through so many things to get here. But everything has been a blessing. Everything has come together for him. It's wonderful."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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