Kentucky Basketball: Is Andrew Harrison Ready to Lead a Championship Team?

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2014

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 23: Andrew Harrison #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives up the court against Fred VanVleet #23 of the Wichita State Shockers during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 23, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky basketball has every reason to be thinking national championship for its loaded 2014-15 roster, but that doesn’t mean that the Wildcats don’t also have some question marks. One of the most important is Andrew Harrison, who’s coming off a less-than-stellar debut season at the point.

Shabazz Napier’s star turn in the 2014 NCAA tournament served as a stark reminder to the Big Blue runners-up: A superstar point guard is the shortest path to a national title. Harrison arrived in Lexington with all the hype of a top-tier floor leader, but the reality didn’t quite measure up.

Like so many freshmen, the 6’6” Texan was wildly erratic for most of the year, fluctuating from one assist to six or five points to 16 in consecutive games at various points. Along with twin brother Aaron, though, he found his footing in the NCAA tournament.

Despite his struggles in UK’s SEC tournament loss to Florida, Harrison put together six consecutive strong games to help spur the Wildcats’ run to the title game. He dished out 5.0 assists per contest (one more than his season average) without missing a beat as a scorer.

It would be premature, though, to read that impressive stretch run as a sign that Harrison has solved the problems that kept him from standing out during the regular season.

Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

In the first place, a six-game hot streak isn’t necessarily sustainable. Michigan’s Mitch McGary made an even bigger leap than Harrison did for his own freshman-year trip to the Big Dance, averaging 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds over six games. His performance in an abbreviated sophomore year was certainly good (9.5 points, 8.3 rebounds) but obviously not at the same level as his March heroics.

Secondly, Harrison’s positive numbers obscured some negatives, including the fact that his turnovers spiked right along with his assists. Even as he was playing his best ball of the year, his assist-to-turnover ratio slumped to a painful 1.25, even worse than his ugly overall mark of 1.48.

His defense was similarly underwhelming, and not just because he couldn’t stop the red-hot Napier in the final. His idiotic foul on Traevon Jackson nearly handed Wisconsin a victory in the national semis. After brother Aaron bailed him out with a game-winning trey, it was Aaron and not Andrew who guarded Jackson on the final possession.

With a year of experience and the confidence of Kentucky’s brilliant postseason to help him, Andrew Harrison is certainly going to be a more reliable and more effective player in 2014-15. He’ll play smarter defense and make better decisions, but he’s not going to turn into Napier (or Marcus Smart, for a more apt physical comparison) overnight.

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 23:  Marquis Teague #25 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots against the Indiana Hoosiers during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional Semifinal game at the Georgia Dome on March 23, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That said, John Calipari’s UK teams have shown the ability to thrive in March even without a point guard playing at an All-American level. Marquis Teague was the least celebrated starter for the 2012 champs, and Brandon Knight took another group of Wildcats to the Final Four without anyone mistaking him for John Wall.

Freshman Trey Lyles is set to be the real leader of next year’s Big Blue squad, regardless of who’s running the attack. Even on the perimeter, Aaron Harrison will probably carry a bigger load (on both ends of the floor) than his brother. Andrew Harrison doesn’t have to be the man for Kentucky to win it all in 2015—he just has to be good enough to let his teammates shine, and that’s a standard he looks ready to meet.