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Lesson pays off for Harrellson, Kentucky

3/12/2011

ATLANTA -- Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson thought he would regret sending the tweet for 30 days.

After grabbing 26 rebounds in Kentucky’s preseason Blue & White scrimmage, Harrellson was screaming for attention from Wildcats coach John Calipari. So Harrellson tweeted something to the effect of: “What do I have to do to get some love from this guy?”

Calipari didn’t find the remark to be very funny. He took away Harrellson’s Twitter privileges and ordered his big man to do additional conditioning runs for 30 days. Before every practice, Harrellson was required to run 20 suicides in 20 minutes.

Kind of like Forrest Gump, Harrellson kept running and running and running.

“It was one of the worst things I’ve ever done,” Harrellson said. “But I realized I had to push through it.”

Thirty days came and went, and three months after that Harrellson finally stopped running. By the time Harrellson was done, he’d lost about 12 pounds and reduced his body-fat percentage from 17 percent to 9 percent.

And his game got much better as a result.

In Kentucky’s 72-58 victory over SEC West champion Alabama in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinal at the Georgia Dome, Harrellson scored 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds.

The Wildcats advanced to play the winner of Saturday’s semifinal between Florida and Vanderbilt in Sunday’s championship game, where UK will be shooting for its 27th SEC tournament title.

After averaging four minutes and scoring 28 points in 22 games as a junior, Harrellson is averaging 6.8 points and 8.7 rebounds this season.

“It’s one thing getting kids that are born on third base and helping them get home,” Calipari said. “It’s another thing when kids are outside the stadium trying to get in. Some of it is the environment they were brought up in, and some it is they are fighting to be a significant player. A guy like Josh, who learned how to work, he did it. It wasn’t what I did. He did it. He changed.”

Harrellson, a 6-foot-10, 263-pound senior from St. Charles, Mo., wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American like many of his UK teammates. He played his first season at Southwestern Illinois College in 2007-08 then transferred to UK. He was recruited by plenty of schools, such as Indiana, Iowa, Iowa State, Missouri, Ohio State and Purdue, but hardly looked like an SEC big man during his first two seasons at Kentucky.

Harrellson averaged 3.6 points and 2.5 rebounds as a sophomore. Former UK coach Billy Gillispie was so frustrated with Harrellson’s lack of production that he made him sit in a bathroom stall during halftime of UK’s 77-64 loss at Vanderbilt on Feb. 17, 2009.

“If you’re doing the same things over and over and thinking you’re going to get a different result, that’s insanity,” Calipari said. “That’s the definition of insanity. You have to change. He changed.”

Before this season started, Kentucky’s other players probably figured Harrellson would spend another campaign sitting on the bench. Calipari hoped Turkish signee Enes Kanter would be playing in the paint this season. But Kanter was ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA in early January because of financial compensation he received from a Turkish professional team.

Harrellson has been better than anyone could have expected. He scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 78-63 victory at Louisville on New Year’s Eve then had 16 points and six rebounds in a 73-61 win against Tennessee on Feb. 8.

Now the Wildcats need Harrellson’s production more than ever. Freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones have struggled in the first two SEC tournament games, shooting a combined 6-for-20 against the Crimson Tide.

Harrellson and junior Darius Miller, who had 10 points against Alabama, are helping the Cats pick up the slack.

“That’s what we need,” Jones said. “It’s the way we hope they finish off the season. Right now, Brandon and I are struggling to hit shots. But we’re still getting big leads. The sky is the limit. With the way Darius and Josh are playing right now, it’s going to be hard to guard all five positions.”

Especially the big kid in the paint.

“Here’s a kid that’s going to be a professional basketball player,” Calipari said. “Are you kidding me? I played him 35 minutes last year for the season. He’s playing 35 minutes a game. I’m proud of him.”