Much of the focus heading into Friday night’s Kentucky-Baylor basketball showdown will be on the frontcourts, and with good reason. But, as impressive as Willie Cauley-Stein vs. Isaiah Austin and Julius Randle vs. Cory Jefferson will be, it’s another Wildcat who holds the key to UK’s hopes of winning at Cowboys Stadium.
Point guard Andrew Harrison has had the quietest season of any of Kentucky’s starters, and his 3.4 assists per game can only be called a disappointment in this loaded offense. He’ll need to prove himself as a leader on both ends of the floor to give Kentucky a win over the Bears.
On offense, Harrison will be the key to dismantling Baylor’s frustrating zone defense. Austin’s length in the middle and the Bears’ experience with Scott Drew’s system make scoring from the paint a daunting prospect, making perimeter offense a must for the ‘Cats.
Andrew Harrison—and not twin brother Aaron, the more heralded shooter—has been the most accurate three-point threat on the roster in limited attempts. He needs to stop deferring to his brother, or to James Young, if he’s the only one whose shots are falling.
In addition, his penetration will be vital to creating scoring opportunities for the rest of the Kentucky offense. Every time he can draw an extra defender, that forces the zone to move and gives the ‘Cats a chance to catch someone out of position—especially if his teammates do their jobs by moving without the ball.
The floor leader’s decision-making ability will also be tested, because there’s going to be a strong temptation to keep feeding Julius Randle no matter what. However, if Randle’s turnover-prone start continues as the Bears defense collapses on him, Harrison must find other directions to take the offense rather than throwing good passes after bad.
As much pressure as he faces on offense, though, Harrison could have an even bigger impact on the other end of the floor. He’ll be matched up with JUCO transfer Kenny Chery, a prolific passer who has made sure Jefferson and standstill sniper Brady Heslip get their looks at the basket.
Chery, for all his talent, stands just 5’11”. He’s never faced a 6’6” guard who can move like Harrison, and Kentucky’s point man must take advantage of his length here.
If he can keep Chery from getting the Baylor offense into a rhythm, neither Jefferson nor Heslip will be able to create shots on their own. That will leave Austin to force up jumpers and fadeaways against the shot-blocking Cauley-Stein, a matchup that decidedly favors the Wildcats.
On the other hand, a big game from Chery will keep the UK defense off-balance and allow Baylor’s variety of scorers to take its toll. Harrison hasn’t made a statement as a defender yet this season, but Friday night would be an ideal time.
When the Wildcats are facing Eastern Michigan or UT-Arlington, they can afford for Harrison to take a backseat to the other talented youngsters on this team. Against big, deep, athletic Baylor, they need him to play like the No. 5 overall recruit ESPN ranked him as heading into the season.