One year ago, one of the most talented teams in the history of college basketball failed to make it to Indianapolis for the national semifinals.
Three members of that team have played under two different coaches and on three very different Kentucky squads. Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, and Josh Harrellson’s roller-coaster ride in blue ranged from being part of the first Kentucky team in 18 years to miss the NCAA Tournament to accomplishing something that five NBA first-round drafts picks couldn’t – something that hasn’t been done by a Wildcats team in 13 years.
They made the Final Four.
“There’s two things that happened with this team. The veteran players, the guys that were on the team a year ago, began to step up and take more responsibility for what was going on. The younger guys took a little step back,” head coach John Calipari said.
“But the biggest thing is they started believing in each other. I kept telling them all along . . . you’re going to have to play together down the stretch. I kept telling them, as the challenge escalates, the need for ‘team’ elevates, and you have to be a team.”
Liggins, who was suspended by Calipari for the first nine games of the 2009-10 season for undisclosed reasons, isolated himself from last year’s team. “That’s part of my personality. That’s no offense to the players last year,” he said.
It was difficult for Liggins to trust anyone after he lost both his father and brother before the age of 15. The two deaths were only separated by a few months.
Calipari finally broke through to him as Liggins allowed himself to trust his teammates and his coach this year. His teammates are his “brothers” while Calipari loves him like a “son”; team and family have become synonymous.
“The difference this year is we’re a smaller team. There’s only 10 of us that travel. Last year, we had 13 guys. Three guys make a big difference,” Harrellson said. “We’re always around each other, always doing stuff, just trying to get closer every day.”
They also have a different identity. Brandon Knight won’t be the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft nor will Terrence Jones be the No. 5 pick. Knight and Jones are not John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, the duo that anchored last year’s team.
Instead, the freshmen this year have let the veterans take the reigns and leadership roles. “We’ve been carrying the freshmen instead of the freshmen having to carry us,” Harrellson said. “When we lost to Ole Miss at Ole Miss, we had a players meeting. From there, us three guys have stepped our game up. Our confidence is sky high.”
Harrellson has come a long way to attain that confidence. He called himself the “worst player in America” who “shouldn’t even have been playing basketball” as a high school freshman.
“They kept me because I was probably 6’4″, 240 pounds, so I had size to me,” he said. “I couldn’t make a layup. I remember working so hard on my left-hand layup, I couldn’t make a right-hand layup.”
But there’s a theme to Harrellson’s life: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. “I kept working every day. I’d stay after practice a couple hours every day,” he said. “By the end of the season, I was playing JV. And then sophomore, junior, and senior year, I played varsity. I kept working, and I’m here now.”
After averaging 4.0 minutes, 1.3 points, and 1.2 rebounds per game last year, Harrellson’s turnaround this year has been one of the team’s biggest surprises. In the regular season, he averaged 28.5 minutes, 7.6 points, and 8.8 rebounds per game.
Those numbers jumped even higher in the NCAA Tournament. Harrellson averaged 36.0 minutes, 14.8 points, and 9.0 rebounds en route to an All-East Region team selection, joining Liggins and Knight.
As for Miller, a native Kentuckian, the significance of playing in Houston isn’t lost on him. “It means a lot to me. I’m from Kentucky. I know what it means to the state,” he said. “It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was little. I’m glad to be here.”
Miller, Liggins, and Harrellson know precisely what Kentucky basketball represents for the people. Like Miller explained, “Kentucky doesn’t really have a pro team, so they look to us and Louisville as their pro teams.”
But more importantly, the three veterans know what Kentucky basketball means to them: a family.