Posted by Matt Jones
Since John Calipari arrived at the University of Kentucky just under two years ago, the program has been best known for one phrase, “one and done”. Beginning with the monster recruiting class he pulled in just a few weeks after taking the job that included John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Calipari has made clear that his goal is to bring in the best talents in America to Lexington. If those players end up going to the NBA after one year, so be it. It bothers Calipari so little that these players may be on a college campus for just one year, that when four of them (and junior Patrick Patterson) were drafted in the first round, he infamously (and somewhat ridiculously) called it, “the greatest day in UK basketball history.” If "one and done" has a face, it is Kentucky basketball under John Calipari.
But this season, in the place known for “one and done”, there has been a resurgence of the veteran’s movement in Lexington. The program that is now processing more elite talent than any college in America has seen its fortunes rise late in the season, in large part thanks to three old men by current Wildcat standards. Darius Miller, Deandre Liggins and Josh Harrellson are certainly not “one and dones”, and in fact, none of them are even John Calipari recruits. But they all three could be the most significant reasons that Kentucky has advanced to yet another Sweet 16.
Three seasons ago, one would have never imagined any of the veterans would have had significant success at Kentucky. Billy Gillispie was the coach of the Kentucky team and began slowly taking the program on a downward spiral that was both dramatic and swift. Miller, Liggins and Harrellson were all part of the same recruiting class, each brought in with some level of accolades and hype, and all three were thought to be significant early contributors.
Almost immediately, the experience went haywire. Gillispie’s hard-nosed, verbally abusive coaching style immediately clashed with all three players. Miller and Liggins's more reclusive personalities recoiled from the constant criticism, with both playing as a shell of their high school selves. The confident duo that had been recruited by the best teams in America, all of a sudden looked like a twosome that didn’t believe they could play at Kentucky and both lost the swagger that they showed prior to coming to the school. Stars who were once aggressive scorers, became tentative and unable to perform, leading to a combined scoring average under ten points. Things were even worse for Harrellson, who found himself the constant target of Gillispie’s abuse and was best known for being forced to sit in a bathroom stall by himself at halftime of a game at Vanderbilt for poor play. All three players had miserable seasons and all three considered a change of scenery.
After the season, as Gillispie was let go and Calipari brought in, the prognosis for the program rose but the future for the threesome didn’t necessarily seem brighter. With Calipari came loads of talent and the three “leftovers” weren’t sure that they would be able to find a role with a coach who didn’t recruit them and who employed a playing style that at least in Harrellson’s case, didn’t necessarily fit their talents. In Calipari’s first season, while Miller and Liggins were contributors, Harrellson rarely played and none of the threesome were truly major factors on the team. All were accepted by Calipari and part of the Kentucky program, but only Miller seemed to have the potential to be an integral factor for the future.
But then came an offseason where everything quickly changed for Kentucky basketball. Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton surprised some around the program by entering the NBA Draft. Darnell Dodson left the team soon thereafter due to a series of disciplinary issues. And most importantly, Turkish big man Enes Kanter was denied eligibility by the NCAA due to a violation of his amateur status. All of a sudden, Kentucky became a team with no depth and only a six-man rotation, three of whom ending up having to be the veterans that had previously been forgotten.
Forced to contributors immediately, all three began the process of changing their games and reaching their potential. After struggling again at the beginning of the season with a lack of aggression (and once again earning the nickname ‘Disappearius’), Darius Miller finally became the player Calipari and the fans hoped he could be once conference play began. After scoring in double figures only five times before the SEC season, Miller turned on his aggressiveness as the opponents became familiar. Over the last 20 games, Miller has gone for double figures 15 times, including in 10 of the last 11 games. His size, shooting ability and long athleticism make him a matchup nightmare for teams and gives Kentucky a legitimate, consistent third scorer.
Deandre Liggins took the challenge of John Calipari seriously and from the beginning, became Kentucky’s official defensive stopper. With his long arms, quickness and never-ending motor, Liggins is a nightmare for perimeter players who seek to score over or around him. In every game this season, Liggins has found himself guarding the other team’s best player and in nearly every game, he has won the battle. While at times, secondary players have hurt Kentucky as they get hot, Liggins is always put on the other team’s primary offensive option and in nearly every case, that star's game is disrupted.
While Miller and Liggins’s success could have potentially been predicted, no one saw the rapid rise this season of Josh Harrellson. The man they call “Jorts,” due to his propensity to wear jean shorts, has been the rock down low that Calipari could have never dreamed he would be. After playing only 88 minutes all season last year, Harrellson has become a rebounding machine for Kentucky, averaging just under 9 a game, good enough for second in the SEC. In key moments in big games, Harrellson has produced his best efforts, with double-digit scoring and rebounds versus arch-rival Louisville, in the SEC tournament and the round of 32 win over West Virginia. His contribution has been so significant and surprising, that Louisville coach Rick Pitino recently called him, “the most underrated player in America.”
Now Kentucky goes into the East regional on Friday to play against an Ohio State team, that from a personnel standpoint, looks a great deal like Kentucky. Both have extremely talented freshmen that are complimented by a number of veteran contributors that execute their particular roles well. On Ohio State, this makeup was always the plan and part of the reason the Buckeyes were considered a national championship contender from the beginning of the year.
But for Kentucky, the fact that this team has not just been the showcase for potential “one and done” freshmen stars like Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, is more than a bit surprising. As the year has continued and Kentucky has begun playing its best basketball of the season, the reason is not because these freshmen have matured and improved. Instead, it is because a group of upperclassmen, who many around the program had given up on seeing contribute anything but token support to the ever-rotating group of talented freshmen. All three are players that might never have been recruited to Kentucky had Calipari been in charge at the time they were available. But all three have flourished and reached new unexpected heights. And in the process, they have put Kentucky on the brink of playing for a Final Four, while also interrupting the notion that Kentucky basketball is now only a place to showcase the talent of the "one and dones."
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