LEXINGTON — Not only was Kentucky’s season at a crossroads, but so might have been Ryan Harrow’s future with the Wildcats.
The sophomore guard had scored in double figures in 12 of 14 games going into last week and seemed to have firmly settled into being UK’s point guard. However, then he regressed. Not just a bit, but a bunch. In a 17-point loss at Florida, he missed all three shots he took, didn’t score and had just one assist and one rebound. However, he was even less productive in a 30-point loss at Tennessee on Saturday when he lost his starting job to Jarrod Polson and went 0-for-2 from the field and didn’t have a point, rebound or assist.
But against Vanderbilt here Wednesday, Harrow was solid from start to finish in the 74-70 victory. He was 6-for-9 from the field and had 12 points. He battled for five rebounds, handed out four assists, made one steal and did not have a turnover in 32 minutes.
Part of his success came because coach John Calipari “opened up the court” to give Harrow and Archie Goodwin (16 points, six rebounds, three assists) a chance to beat defenders off the dribble.
“We are a good enough 3-point shooting team — you've got to guard people. You've got to guard Alex (Poythress). You've got to guard Kyle (Wiltjer). You've got to guard Julius (Mays). You can't just say, well, we'll pack everybody in as you spread the court. You can't do that because we can make 3s,” said Calipari. “But it also gives Ryan room to move and get his confidence. So we opened up the court so he could get into some pick-and-rolls. And you know, he needs to play more confident, and he did today.”
Actually, that confidence started a day earlier when Harrow asked for a meeting with Calipari and told him that he wanted his starting position back.
“I said, ‘OK, you've got a responsibility, though, if you're going to start.’ We talked about it,” Calipari said. “And you know, any time guys come at me with stuff like that, it's easy for me because it takes it off my plate. Now it's on their plate. You want to start, OK, great, here you go. Well start. And I thought he was terrific today. But that's how he's got to play for us.”
Harrow said teammates told him at a players-only meeting they wanted “me to be out there to make plays.” He said he sat down with assistant coaches and family members and decided he wanted to meet with Calipari — and did for about 15 minutes.
“I just felt like I needed to go to coach Calipari and tell him that I was going to do whatever he needed me to do just so that I could be out there to play,” Harrow said. “I just wanted to let him know I was all-in and would listen and do what was best for the team.”
Calipari said after the Tennessee loss that he had players that were not coachable. He seemed to be singling out Harrow and Goodwin for their play in UK’s first game after the season-ending injury to center Nerlens Noel.
“At Tennessee, everybody was down and not bringing it, including me,” Harrow said. “We had to bounce back this game. I was just more aggressive. He (Calipari) told me he needed me to take shots because when I’m aggressive, everybody else is aggressive and the flow of the game is better. I know how much the team needs me. I didn’t want Coach to feel like I gave up on the team.”
Goodwin said he didn’t want to talk about what the players told Harrow — “He can tell you. Personal stuff was involved” — but that the players all trust each other.
“If he feels he needed to say something to Coach, we were behind him. We did tell him that,” Goodwin said.
Freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein had a Noel-type game with a career-high 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, including two late in the game when UK was trying to survive after going eight minutes without a field goal turned a 58-45 lead into a 61-59 edge with almost four minutes to play. However, Cauley-Stein knew how important Harrow’s return to form was for the Cats.
“That was a big step for Ryan. We need him to be more vocal like that and get it within himself and express how he feels to Coach. It is all about growing up and starting to be a man like that. That is what they express to us every day,” Cauley-Stein said.
Harrow said the game was fun, something it had not been for him or others recently.
“We were all smiling and happy and just trying to keep the energy level up,” Harrow, who fouled out, said.
Because Harrow’s play was so much better, UK had just seven turnovers — and three were by Cauley-Stein. That’s why Calipari was upset that Harrow committed fouls that “just were not smart fouls” that put him on the bench.
“But what he did do is he got to the rim, he played strong. He was terrific,” Calipari said.
He was. But it can’t stop now, not with Missouri and it’s talented backcourt coming to Rupp Arena for ESPN GameDay Saturday. If UK¿has any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament, it has to win that game. To do that, UK’s guard play has to go from shaky as Calipari said it was last week to even better than it was against Vanderbilt.
“Now we go on. We have a challenge with Missouri. Their guards are really good. Well, our guards are going to have to be really good to have a chance to win the game. We have to be really good,” Calipari said.