HOUSTON — Aaron Harrison appreciates the praise and pats on the back, but they haven’t made the past few months any easier.
Any time a fan congratulates Harrison for the last-minute three-pointers he made to beat Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament, the Kentucky shooting guard has the same thought.
“We still ended our season with a loss,” Harrison told Bleacher Report. “The compliments are nice, but it’s never a good feeling to go out losing. We didn’t get that last one. We didn’t accomplish our goal.”
And that, Harrison said, is the main reason he and his twin brother, Andrew, opted to return to Lexington for their sophomore seasons rather than enter the NBA draft. Just as it did last season, Kentucky—which lost to Connecticut in the NCAA title game—will likely open the season ranked No. 1 in the country.
“Only this time,” Aaron said, “We’ll be more prepared.”
The Harrisons, who have spent most of the past month in Houston working out with former NBA player and head coach John Lucas, surprised many with their decision.
After all, the Houston Chronicle's Angel Verdejo noted that the twins were tagged as one-and-done prospects before they ever set foot on Kentucky’s campus last summer. Andrew, a point guard, was projected as a lottery pick while Aaron was also slotted for the first round.
Even though their stock dropped a bit during the 2013-14 campaign, they still would’ve been drafted had they chosen to bolt. Andrew said he and his brother were told they’d either be late first-round or early second-round picks.
“My dream is still to go to the NBA,” Andrew said. “But I want to win a national championship, too. That was the biggest factor in it—that and becoming a better player. I lost confidence at times last season, especially early.
“I need to walk out there feeling like I’m the best player on the court.”
That certainly appeared to be Andrew’s mindset during both the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Even though his brother was the one making the heroic shots, it was the tone Andrew set as Kentucky’s point guard that made the made the biggest difference in a magnificent postseason run.
Andrew was more aggressive going toward the basket, practiced better shot selection and, more than anything, emerged as the leader and vocal presence that Kentucky’s young squad had lacked all season.
In a nutshell, he quit worrying about himself and focused on his team.
“My dad told me (before the SEC tournament) to just start having fun again,” Andrew said. “He just said to relax and not worry about the NBA draft or my stats or anything like that. I got a lot of my confidence back during the tournament. I’m still working on it, but I feel like I’m doing pretty well.”
If anything, the Harrisons—and Kentucky’s entire team, for that matter—will be better equipped to handle the rigors and pressure that will accompany the upcoming season because they’ll know what to expect.
Kentucky started five freshmen last season, and it wasn’t until March that the Wildcats finally resembled the cohesive unit that head coach John Calipari had been longing for since November.
Kentucky opened the season ranked No. 1, lost 10 games and eventually fell out of the polls before finding its mojo when it mattered most. The Wildcats made the NCAA title game as a No. 8 seed.
“I think we’ll all have a lot more fun earlier in the season,” Aaron said. “The game is about energy, and we’ll have it early on because we’ll be ready for anything. We won’t have to go through that learning curve.”
Kentucky lost Julius Randle and James Young to the NBA draft, but along with the Harrisons, it returns rising sophomore Dakari Johnson and rising juniors Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
247Sports.com indicates that Kentucky also signed the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class. Unlike last season, the newcomers will have a cast of veterans to guide them through tough times early on.
“We’ll be ready for the atmospheres that we play in and we’ll be ready for the criticism that we take,” Andrew said. “We’ve been through it now, and that will give us an advantage over a lot of teams.
“Last year it was the exact opposite.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR