Kentucky's Harrellson takes unlikely road to success

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Thad Matta had just lost and his words were soaked in frustration and disappointment. Yet buried in numerous statements from the Ohio State coach were perhaps the most true things spoken in the tournament thus far. Pay attention here. It’s important.

Matta was speaking of Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson, who buried Ohio State with 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in the Buckeyes' loss to the Wildcats. Harrellson also, for a significant chunk of the night, completely punk'd Buckeye forward Jared Sullinger. Bullied him, really, until Sullinger decided he'd had enough, and started to fight back. By then it was too late.

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Matta obviously was impressed with Harrellson and in what was sort of rambling response in a request for Matta to elaborate on why Kentucky was the best team Ohio State had faced all year, Matta gave the most accurate quote of the day, maybe the year.

"I think Harrellson is probably the most underrated player in college basketball," said Matta.

The most underrated player in college basketball. It's quite a statement and Matta isn't exactly prone to bouts of extreme hyperbole. But you know what? Matta is probably right.

Watch Harrellson play. He moves with skill and elasticity, and cease the "Harrellson is gritty" stuff, too. Sure, he's tough, but there's talent there. It spills out like a pipe gorged with water that just burst.

How many people outside the state of Kentucky knew about Harrellson before this season? Maybe Woody Harrelson, but not Josh.

"You see a player who is having as big an impact on college basketball as anyone," Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

How Harrellson got here -- Josh, not Woody -- is almost as compelling as the way he dominated Sullinger. It was an atypical path, to say the least. He sums up the early part of his basketball life this way: "I was never too serious about basketball."

Harrellson didn't start playing until high school and in fact was more skilled as a baseball pitcher. When he tried out for Kentucky's freshman basketball team he was so bad the wife of the coach wanted him cut. "I was terrible," Harrellson said.

Josh Harrellson makes no mistake in his battle for the ball against Jared Sullinger. (AP)  
Josh Harrellson makes no mistake in his battle for the ball against Jared Sullinger. (AP)  
He stuck around -- barely -- but remained mostly a non-factor. In fact, Harrellson was known more as a prankster and smartass than basketball player. And a target for coaches. During one game uber-jerk Billy Gillispie, the former Kentucky coach, ordered that Harrellson listen to halftime instructions from the bathroom stall. Gillispie also forced Harrellson to ride back to Lexington after that tough Vanderbilt loss in an equipment truck instead of the bus with his teammates.

In October, Harrellson angered Calipari with a now infamous Twitter snarfblatt, following a 26-rebound performance in the Blue-White scrimmage. Harrellson wanted praise from Calipari for the extraordinary effort. When Harrellson didn't get it, off to Twitter he went to pout.

Part of what Harrellson tweeted: "Just amazing to me I can't get a good job or way to go." There was a little more but you get the point.

Calipari tweeted back: "Please don't fault Josh. He’s never dealt w/ how to handle success. I promoted him to the 1st team & told the team to applaud his effort." That Tweet was followed by: "I'm looking for consistency in practice, scrimmages & games. He won't be tweeting until he's responsible enough to handle success & failure."

Harrellson’s Twitter account was suspended and Harrellson himself was forced into a regimented punishment of running and other exercises for 45 minutes at a time over 30 days. A strange thing happened to Harrellson while serving his exercise banishment. As his lungs burned and limbs ached, he matured. For one of the few times, Harrellson started to take the sport seriously. "I grew up," he said.

Those 30 days of conditioning became a self-induced 60 and then 90. By the time he was done Harrellson had lost 12 to 15 pounds and his body began to take a more formidable and athletic shape. His march to madness had begun and, well, here he is, a new man.

"Josh went from the jokester, the prankster in practice to a guy that comes early and trains for 30 minutes before we start," Calipari said. "And then works his butt off and encourages his team to work, versus pull back the practice. He has totally changed his body. He totally changed his approach to practice. He's totally changed his skill level. And what's happened is you see a different result."

Look at him now. Just look at him now. The most underrated player in college basketball.

Out of the bathroom stall, the equipment truck, Twitter jail and the doghouse, and a step away from the Final Four.

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