Kentucky Basketball: How Will Andrew Harrison Handle Postseason Pressure?

Thad NovakCorrespondent IFebruary 26, 2014

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As Kentucky basketball starts to look toward the postseason, there’s no bigger question mark on the roster than Andrew Harrison. The freshman has been wildly erratic in his debut season, and as a point guard, he's inherently under a little extra pressure come tournament time.

That goes double for the floor leader of a Wildcats squad that has sputtered all year when forced to play half-court offense. At 12.3 turnovers per game, Kentucky ranks 155th nationally (tied with 15 other teams, per, and an appreciable share of the blame for that figure belongs to Harrison.

Fortunately for the ‘Cats, there is reason to believe that the youngster is starting to put it together on the offensive end. For one thing, he’s become more consistent as a passer, handing out 3.7 assists per game in February to raise his season average to 3.5.

He’s also been taking better advantage of the free-throw line. The 6’6” freshman has a size and strength advantage over virtually every defender he faces, and he’s at his best taking the ball to the paint and forcing the D to commit fouls in order to stop him.

Harrison has been doing that fairly consistently in recent contests, averaging 5.4 free throws a game in February after failing to get to the line at all in back-to-back January outings. Even better, he’s one of the few ‘Cats who’s hitting from the stripe, connecting on 76.3 percent of his tries for the year and a gaudy 81.6 percent this month.

In addition, Saturday’s win over LSU saw him turn in a respectable performance against an elite defender (ball-hawking junior Anthony Hickey) who had wiped the floor with him in Baton Rouge. Though he still didn’t do much scoring in the rematch, Harrison went from eight points, zero rebounds and one assist in the first game to nine points, six boards and four assists in the second, indicating that he may finally be adjusting to facing high-pressure schemes. And whether he's totally comfortable in spotlight moments, coach John Calipari is going to keep going to him, as he told Keith Taylor of The Winchester Sun after the LSU game.

I don’t want him to judge himself on shooting. You know what I told him after the game? We came out of that timeout and twice I ran a play for him to get a wide‑open shot on that wing and he missed. I said, ‘I’ll run it again for you because I know you can make that.’ Don’t you worry about missing. If we give you a play, you got to make it. So he’s getting better.

There is, however, an elephant in the room that Harrison has shown no real signs of addressing: his own defensive abilities, or lack thereof. In Kentucky’s six losses, the freshman’s primary man-to-man assignment has averaged a terrifying combination of 19.2 points and 4.0 assists per game.

Scottie Wilbekin is just one of the opposing point guards who have torched Kentucky on Harrison's watch.
Scottie Wilbekin is just one of the opposing point guards who have torched Kentucky on Harrison's watch.James Crisp/Associated Press

That’s no small concern in a season in which the tournament figures to be stacked with high-scoring point guards (including Marcus Paige, Keith Appling and Scottie Wilbekin, all of whom contributed to the aforementioned averages). As Wilbekin’s Gators showed, even a 20-point night from Harrison can go to waste if the freshman gives up even more to the man he’s guarding.

He also has a dangerous tendency to pile up personal fouls: Harrison has fouled out three times this season, and he’s reached four fouls on seven other occasions. If he’s not on the floor, his offensive improvement won’t do his team any good, especially in crunch time.

Those shortcomings play a role in Harrison's fall from NBA mock drafts, where he was once considered a top-30 prospect. As noted by Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal

[ESPN's Chad Ford] has said repeatedly the Harrisons (both brothers) should return to UK for their sophomore seasons, and that opinion is growing more common as Andrew and Aaron Harrison, freshman guards from Richmond, Texas, settle into the Southeastern Conference grind.

When Kentucky has the ball this postseason, it will get a more productive and more reliable version of Andrew Harrison than the one that started the year, one who will be able to hold up under the weight of his responsibilities.

When its opponents have the ball, though, there’s no reason to believe that its young point guard will be able to prevent his opposite number from running the ‘Cats right out of the arena.