In early January, shortly before the start of SEC play, Kentucky’s John Calipari received a phone call from a coach at a Division I school. The Wildcats were just days removed from a win against defending national champion Louisville, and the colleague wanted to congratulate his friend.
“To be honest,” the coach told Calipari, “I’m a little surprised. I thought those twins would’ve wrecked your team by now.”
Calipari wouldn’t reveal the name of the coach.
Not that it matters.
The opinion he expressed about Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison was one Calipari had heard numerous times during the fall and winter, when he repeatedly found himself defending the character of his highly-touted freshmen.
“People think they’re bad kids, bad teammates,” Calipari told Bleacher Report in February. “I have no idea where that comes from. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Calipari chuckled half-heartedly.
“They’re not the problem,” he said. “They’re the solution.”
It appears Calipari was correct.
Kentucky—a team most analysts had written off just a few weeks ago—has jelled just in the nick of time. The Wildcats have advanced to the Final Four for the third time in four years following one of the most impressive postseason runs in recent memory.
Calipari's squad toppled previously-unbeaten Wichita State in the round of 32, defending national champion Louisville in the Elite Eight and Big Ten-title winner Michigan in the Elite Eight.
None of it would've occurred without the Harrisons.
Andrew, a point guard, is averaging 12.3 points and 5.3 assists in the NCAA tournament. A shooting guard, Aaron is scoring 16 points per game while shooting 54.1 percent (13-of-24) from three-point range.
“If those guys keep playing that well, they’re going to be cutting down some nets,” Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet said.
The Harrisons' success has hardly surprised Calipari, who knew all along that they were capable of greatness. Still, getting to this point was hardly an easy process.
Calipari chided the brothers for showing poor body language on the court, usually after being whistled for a foul or missing a shot. “Experts” on television criticized Andrew for a lack of leadership and labeled Aaron as one-dimensional.
Kentucky, the country’s top-ranked team in the preseason, lost 10 games and fell out of the rankings. After nearly every loss, Andrew would hear stories of fans shredding him on Twitter and Internet message boards. And even though their main focus was winning, the twins couldn’t help but notice the mock drafts that indicated they’d fallen out of the first round.
They said they often treated games as if they were job interviews because of all of the scouts watching from courtside, creating even more pressure.
“Of course we want to win,” Aaron Harrison said in February. “Everyone does. But we’re also aware that we’re being evaluated individually. It’s about the team, but it’s also about how you’re playing.”
As happy as he is with how things are unfolding in March, Aaron Harrison Sr. said his sons’ freshman season has hardly gone as planned.
“They weren’t used to some of the things that happened,” Harrison Sr. said. “It hasn’t been a smooth season. It’s been rough.
“At times, very rough.”
When Aaron and Andrew Harrison held a press conference to announce their college intentions, nearly all of the 2,800 students at Travis High School in Richmond, Texas, wanted to attend. The on-campus gymnasium wasn’t big enough to accommodate such a crowd, so a raffle was held to determine who would be admitted.
The Harrisons' popularity had little to do with basketball. It was more about them as people.
“That’s what we loved about our high school,” Andrew Harrison said. “No one treated us like we were star basketball players. We were treated just like everyone else.”
Things changed when the Harrisons arrived at Kentucky.
As two of the headliners of a recruiting class that some tabbed as the best in college history, the Harrisons said they couldn’t help buy into the hype that the Wildcats had a chance to go undefeated. Fans fueled the buzz by wearing “40-0” shirts around Lexington, which made a season-opening setback against Michigan State difficult to stomach.
“There were tears in that locker room after we lost,” Calipari said.
It didn’t get any easier.
Kentucky dropped four nonconference games before the marquee win against Louisville on Dec. 28. More often than not, the Wildcats appeared to lack chemistry. The ball wasn’t moving on offense and, defensively, there was a lack of energy.
On some nights, a squad that featured seven McDonald’s All-Americans didn’t even look like a top-25 team. As the Wildcats’ point guard, Andrew often took a lot of the blame.
“I’d never received criticism in basketball,” Andrew said. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. People were saying, ‘He’s not as good as we thought,’ and they were saying stuff about the draft and about how (Aaron and I) were falling.
“You can’t let that affect you. If it does it’ll mess up more than just basketball. It’ll ruin your entire day, your entire life.”
Calipari did his best to counsel the twins during their struggles.
He reminded Andrew that some of his previous high-profile freshmen point guards—namely Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight—had the benefit of playing with veterans who helped shoulder some of the leadership burden.
Conversely, this season’s Kentucky team starts five freshmen.
“It’s a tough situation,” Calipari said, “because he’s trying to learn and get better and break some of his bad habits yet, at the same time, he’s trying to lead the whole team. It’d be a burden for anyone.”
Calipari said one of Andrew and Aaron’s biggest problems was body language. They’d react to a missed shot by not hustling back on defense, which led to an easy basket by an opponent. Some nights they weren’t quick enough to congratulate teammates after a good play and, if a call went against them, they’d flail their arms and make a pouty face.
In other words, they were more concerned with themselves than the team.
The Harrisons understood Calipari’s point, but only to an extent. Aaron said their frustration was simply a sign that they were competitive and passionate about winning.
Still, the Harrisons continued to take heat. During a loss at LSU, ESPN commentators were so critical of the Harrisons that their high school principal attempted to phone the network to complain.
It seemed as if people refused to concede that these were good kids who were simply going through growing pains and maturing like most other college freshmen.
“One day a story ran on the Internet with a picture of Aaron making a face, looking all upset,” Aaron Harrison Sr. said. “He showed me pictures on his phone of five different NBA players making the same expression. None of them get criticized for it, but for some reason, he got ridiculed for it.
“It bothered me, but it never moved me because I know what kind of people they are. If I could get them to clean up their room, they’d be the perfect kids.”
As much as they enjoyed being with their teammates, the Harrisons often kept to themselves during the season. They knew they’d be in the public eye at Kentucky. But they were still overwhelmed by the passion of Big Blue Nation which, as senior guard Jon Hood said, “wants you to win by 30 every night, even if you’re playing the Miami Heat.”
“I love the fans,” Andrew said. “But sometimes it gets a little uncomfortable. You really have to watch what you do. You can’t go anywhere without people tweeting about you, especially when you’re struggling.”
One of Andrew’s favorite hobbies is to stay in his room and watch movies on his computer. He said he recently watched Glory, starring Denzel Washington.
“I like how he was a leader,” Andrew said in February. “He stood up for his army and got it through a tough time. It’s kind of like me and this team. I want to do the same thing.”
Harrison eventually did.
But he had to clear one more obstacle first.
A few weeks ago, before Kentucky flew to Atlanta for the SEC tournament, Aaron Harrison Sr. met with his sons in their Lexington dorm room.
To his surprise, Andrew told him one of the biggest reasons for his inconsistent play was constant speculation surrounding his NBA draft status. He said the pressure to be a high first-round pick was getting the best of him on the court.
Aaron Sr. was quick to put Andrew’s mind at ease.
“Our situation is different than a lot of families,” Aaron Sr. said. “We’re a middle-class family. We’ve never had financial stresses. There’s no pressure for him (to enter the NBA draft) after this season.
“If he needs to come back, he’ll come back. Same thing with Aaron. I told them not to even think about that stuff right now. They just need to relax and have fun.”
In some ways, it was the same advice Calipari had been preaching all along.
“By the time the season ends, they’ll have options,” Calipari said. “But if they worry now about those choices, they’ll never become the players they want to become. I’ve told them, ‘Lose yourself in your team, lose yourself in the college experience. We’ll gather the (NBA) information when it’s over. If you have to come back for another year, so what?’”
Andrew and Aaron Harrison have taken those words to heart.
Ever since that meeting with their father, the twins are carrying themselves in an entirely different manner. They’re looser now, teammates say. They smile a lot and are more prone to celebrating a teammates’ basket instead of lamenting their own miss.
To get others more involved, Calipari has instructed Andrew to make at least one pass on every possession before he shoots. The strategy has resulted in nearly two fewer field-goal attempts per game for Aaron, but more assists—and more points for his team.
Within a matter of weeks, a locker room that was once engulfed by tension and angst is now filled with laughter and smiles. That’s what comes with winning, and Kentucky wouldn't be doing it if it weren’t for the twins.
In some ways it's just as Calipari promised back in mid-February: The Harrisons aren’t the problem. They’re the solution.
NBA scouts have taken notice.
"They were hardly even being talked about a few weeks ago, but now they're back in the conversation," one scout told Bleacher Report Tuesday night. "It's hard to say if they'd be first-rounders, but they're very draftable players. They'd be taken somewhere.
"I still think they need another year of college, but there are a ton of guys coming out that you could say that about."
The Harrisons could certainly enhance their NBA stock with strong performances at the Final Four.
It certainly won’t be easy.
Wisconsin, the Wildcats' opponent in Saturday's semifinal, is one of the more well-disciplined teams in the country. Bo Ryan's squad is patient on offense, works for good shots and also defends at a high level. The Badgers frustrated the heck of out red-hot Baylor (69-52) and No. 1 seed Arizona (64-63 in OT) in last week's West Regional. The Wildcats know Wisconsin will be at its best Saturday.
But so will Kentucky if the Harrison twins continue their recent tear.
“They’re fighters to the end," Aaron Harrison Sr. said. "I never thought they’d give up or break down under pressure, and they didn’t. It made them stronger. What’s happening now...this is what they’re all about.
“This is what they’re used to.”