TAMPA, Fla. -- If somebody told you the story, you wouldn't believe it.
Kid goes from being banished to the bathroom by a coach during halftime as a sophomore -- and being forced to drive home from that away game in the equipment van -- to surrounded by reporters after an NCAA tournament game that he played a big part in winning.
|Josh Harrellson has contributed 15 points in both of Kentucky's tournament victories. (US Presswire)|
Josh Harrellson is that player. The 6-foot-10 post player for fourth-seeded Kentucky had 15 points and eight rebounds, including a key offensive rebound and lay-in late in the game, to help Kentucky to a 71-63 victory over West Virginia on Saturday at St. Pete Times Arena in an East Regional game.
One more number from his stat line: Four stitches above his left eye.
On a team stocked with future NBA players, including likely one-and-done variety players like point guard Brandon Knight, who went for a career-high 30 against the Moutaineers, Harrelleson has been little more than a big body to fill space. But in two tournament games, he has scored 30 points after averaging 6.8 during the season.
"Scoring 15 back-to-back," Harrellson said. "I never thought I'd do that."
Get in line, son. Anybody who would have predicted that he would play a key role in getting Kentucky to the Sweet 16 might have had a little too much of that good old Kentucky Bourbon.
That's why as Harrellson was surrounded by reporters, former NBA point guard Rod Strickland, now on the Kentucky staff, stood to the side with a giant smile.
"You're as surprised as everybody else, right," I asked about his look.
"No, I'm just happy for the kid," Strickland said.
Kentucky had four one-and-done players last season, all first-round picks. Knight and Terrence Jones might follow, and Doron Lamb also has a chance to go if he gets feedback that he might be a late first-round pick.
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Harrellson is a senior. He's one of the throwbacks, a kid who goes to school, plays four years and then moves on.
His next basketball will come playing pickup with the guys at the office.
"I never knew I'd be the type of player I am," Harrellson said. "I just worked hard and changed my body."
The idea coming into the season was that Enes Kanter, another freshman from Turkey, would be the center. But the No. 1 center recruit in the country couldn't get eligible, leaving Harrellson as one of the few big bodies on the roster.
Jones was asked about what he thought about some of the older players on the roster after the team's preseason trip to Canada. His reply: "I was like man, I hope Enes can play," Jones said in December.
Now they love the center they call "Jorts," a nickname coming from Harrellson's love of jean shorts.
"In my opinion, he's one of the best big men in the tournament," said Kentucky forward Darius Miller. "In my mind, he won the game for us."
Knight won the game for them. After making just one basket -- the game-winner -- in Kentucky's victory over Princeton Thursday, Knight showed off the skills that will make him a lottery pick if he comes out this year. He was smooth, quick and made 9-of-20 shots, including 3-for-8 from behind the arc.
It was a much different Knight than from the one we saw against Princeton. He seemed much more into this one.
"They went under screens," Knight said. "As a shooter, if somebody goes under screens I'm looking to shoot the basketball."
His day, though, was overshadowed by the surprising play of Harrellson.
When Harrellson first got to Kentucky, he was out of shape and soft. That's why then-Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie sent him to the bathroom during an away game at Vanderbilt during the 2008-09 season. He then forced him into the van for the ride home. The story is even worse, according to some, because Gillispie also supposedly ranted about Harrellson's lack of toughness, using some not-so-nice words.
"It was a long trip," Harrellson said "I just never let it get to me. At halftime, he told me just to go to the bathroom. He didn't want me in the room with them."
Why didn't he quit?
"I love the sport too much to let something like that push me aside," Harrellson said. "Everybody who coaches has a different way of coaching. He tried to teach me to come and play tough."
Amazingly, Harrellson still communicates with Gillispie, who was fired by Kentucky two years ago.
When he sees him play now, Gillispie sees a leaner, tougher version of the player he degraded.
"Lot of suicides [sprints] for him," Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne said. "He worked to get himself in shape."
I asked Miller about the "before" Harrellson.
Now he's one of those special tournament stories. The cut on his eye came late in the game when he took an elbow to the head, but he had it bandaged up and he returned for the end.
There wasn't a chance this kid was going to stay out.
Not after what he has been through.