How Harrison twins went from Kentucky saviors to targets to saviors again

Pat Forde
Kentucky head coach John Calipari right, instructs Andrew Harrison (5) and Aaron Harrison (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas-Arlington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 105-76. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
Kentucky head coach John Calipari right, instructs Andrew Harrison (5) and Aaron Harrison (2) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas-Arlington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 105-76. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

The latest update from This Spring in Revisionist History:

Kentucky fans eager for the Harrison twins to leave for the first three months of 2014 are now celebrating their announced return to school for 2014-15 as wildly as a national championship.

Which the Wildcats may well win. They're certainly the new favorite after the Friday announcement that Andrew and Aaron Harrison are going to be college sophomores instead of entering the NBA draft. That gives Kentucky one of the most loaded rosters in college basketball history, a hand so flush it could make last year's seven McDonald's All-American rotation look sparse by comparison.

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For the first time in John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, he could start five college veterans next season. Four would be hamburger All-Americans: the Harrisons in the backcourt, Alex Poythress at small forward and Dakari Johnson at center, with 7-foot junior Willie Cauley-Stein at power forward. That would leave four McDonald’s All-American freshmen coming off the bench in Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, plus late-impact sophomore Marcus Lee. UK could field so many conceivable combinations from that group – big, bigger, gigantic, smaller, faster, etc. – that there is no limit to Calipari’s options.

The only limits are these: playing time and basketballs. There are 200 minutes to divvy up and one ball. Parceling those out in a manner that keeps everyone at least moderately happy will be the challenge.

But let's face it: Every coach would rather have too many players than not enough.

The return of big men like Cauley-Stein and Johnson is nice. But the return of the Harrisons is the key. It keeps Kentucky from having to start an all-freshman backcourt with limited depth, and it again ensures the Wildcats will be colossally long and defensively very difficult to score upon.

So the celebrating in the bluegrass is understandable. But it's also laughable. There was a time when the twins were being crushed by those now fawning over them.

When the 2013-14 Wildcats struggled their way through an underachieving regular season, the Harrisons were the leading targets for fan criticism. There were message-board threads ripping their game, their demeanor and their commitment to the program. A good percentage of UK fans couldn't wait to be done with them, assuming they were just passing through for one season.

Analysts in the media pinned the blame squarely on the Harrisons – particularly Andrew. They were on TV, on the radio and in print opining he was overrated by recruiting analysts and incapable of continuing Calipari's legacy of elite point-guard play.

Then the postseason happened.

"Tweaked" by John Calipari into shooting less and passing more, Andrew Harrison ran the offense extremely well in the SEC and NCAA tournaments. He was particularly good against LSU and Georgia in the SECs and Wichita State and Louisville in the NCAAs, averaging 14.5 points and 6.8 assists.

Aaron Harrison, meanwhile, went on a Mr. Big Shot roll like few others ever have in NCAA play. He hit what proved to be the game-winners three straight times, beating Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin with last-minute 3-pointers. He averaged 15.7 points in nine postseason games, making 24 of 50 3s.

It was a near-perfect rebound from a rough season. The twins were badly outplayed in the title game by Connecticut's Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, which may have renewed doubts about their NBA readiness in the eyes of some franchises.

So the Harrisons improved their play enough to help Kentucky make a remarkable run to the national title game – but not enough to salvage their draft stock that had plummeted from lottery picks a year ago to fringe first-round picks now. Their performance was just disappointing enough in the eyes of the NBA to bring them back for a second season of college ball.

That's a completely personal decision, but it seems the right choice for the twins. They are good players but far from complete, and will need to improve their skills to compensate for a lack of high-end athleticism. They're big for guards at 6-foot-6, but not particularly explosive or quick.

And another year of mental maturation should be valuable. Despite the late-season improvement, there still was a tendency to make bad decisions or let adverse circumstances get to them. Growing up a little more is not a bad thing.

This goes against the Harrison family plan, which was to spend a June night in 2014 in the green room waiting to shake hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver. But changes in plans are part of life, and this change should be beneficial for both young men in the long run.

As an added bonus, they're nearly as popular in Kentucky now as they were last summer, when they first arrived. They were hailed as saviors, then ripped as detriments to the program, and now hailed as saviors again. The hero-to-bum-to-hero journey has come full circle for Andrew and Aaron Harrison.

All they have to do now is win it all next year.

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