John Calipari is fond of the saying, “This place is not for everyone.”
The Kentucky head coach uses those words as something of a baiting challenge to the nation’s top recruits as well as a warning to those who may have doubts about whether they have the goods to succeed in the basketball pressure cooker otherwise known as the Big Blue Nation.
No other player carries that weight in Calipari’s program quite like the point guard. With an astounding run of stars at the position during his time at Kentucky and Memphis that includes five consecutive one-and-done NBA draft picks – Derrick Rose (No. 1 overall pick in 2008), Tyreke Evans (No. 4 in 2009), John Wall (No. 1 in 2010), Brandon Knight (No. 8 in 2011) and Marquis Teague (No. 29 in 2012) – it is almost taken for granted that the Wildcats will have a great floor general every year.
Then something strange happened. Six games into the 2012-13 season, No. 8 Kentucky finds itself without that player. At least not yet. And in a place where even the most seemingly insignificant details about the Wildcats often wind up in headlines or message-board fodder, the point guard topic has taken on a soap opera-type storyline.
“We are what we are,” says Calipari, who has tried a revolving door of players at the point early this season that includes transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, highly-touted shooting guard signee Archie Goodwin, and former walk-on Jarrod Polson. “It’s a work in progress.”
That was evident Thursday night as Kentucky (4-2) suffered only its second double-digit loss during the Calipari era, a 64-50 setback to unranked Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. With the exception of Mays, who played most of the game at the wing and scored a team-high 16 points, the Wildcats’ other point guards went a combined 3-for-14 from the field and committed four turnovers. Even more concerning for Calipari, UK never got into any kind of offensive rhythm against the Irish, shooting a season-low 40 percent after entering the game No. 1 nationally in field goal percentage.
Ryan Harrow has been at the center of Kentucky's point guard uncertainty this season.
The player expected to inherit the job from Teague, a Chicago Bulls selection in this year’s NBA draft, was Harrow. The former N.C. State guard sat out last season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, but was thought to be a solid candidate to step into the role after coming to Lexington with Freshman All-ACC honors and practicing with the Wildcats’ national championship squad.
After a shaky debut Nov. 9 in Kentucky’s 72-69 win over Maryland, however, a game which saw Harrow go scoreless in 10 minutes of action and watch as the unheralded Polson led the Wildcats to a hard-fought victory with several clutch plays down the stretch, the sophomore guard was diagnosed with an unknown illness that was said to be robbing him of energy. Harrow missed the next game against Duke, then went home to Raleigh, N.C., to deal with what Calipari described as a “family issue.” Two more games went by the wayside.
Naturally, that sent the Big Blue Nation rumor mill into overdrive. Harrow, after all, had been the recipient of several Calipari rants during ESPN’s “All Access Kentucky” mini-series.
Was he really dealing with health issues, or did his leave of absence have more to do with anxiety from being called out and labeled “soft” on a reality show with a nation of sports fans watching? Would the former five-star high school prospect ever return to Lexington, or would he be seeking his third college in three years at the end of the semester?
The air began to clear a bit this week as Harrow returned to UK with a smile and renewed determination. He met with the local media on Wednesday prior to the Wildcats travelling to South Bend.
Julius Mays has taken the PG reins admirably so far.
“I’m just happy to be back, happy to be able to play, happy to be able to focus on the rest of the season,” Harrow said. “… I know I’m going to have to work to get my time back because I wasn’t at practice, and I understand that.”
Harrow told reporters he has dealt with a still-unknown illness that leaves him fatigued during this time of year dating back to his high school years.
“I had flu-like symptoms and I ended up passing out in a (high school) game,” he said. “I had to sit out three games. Last year here (at UK) I had to sit out a week of practice, and then this happened. It happens to me every time around this time of year and nobody seems to know what’s going on. I even got the flu shot this year. I tried to help prevent it. I don’t like needles, but I tried to get it this year to prevent it.”
He maintained that his time away from the team had more to do with that health situation than any perceived clash with Calipari.
“That’s just something you have to handle when you come to Kentucky, when you play for a person like Coach Cal,” he said. “If you can’t handle that, there’s no point in you coming here. The media and fans will just eat you up.”
Still, Harrow said the “All Access” program only showed half of his relationship with Calipari.
“You all didn’t see the part where me and him just go sit in the office and talk or the part where me and him are hugging after practice and he’s telling me I did a good job,” Harrow said. “… He tells me that I’m doing better a lot more now, but he still yells at me and stuff like that. I’m kind of used to it.”
For his part in the drama, Calipari maintains he hasn’t changed his approach with Harrow or any of the Wildcats.
“I am coaching them exactly the same,” he said. “It is amazing how when I ask them, ‘Who in this room am I being the toughest on?’ Seven guys will raise their hands. They all think it’s them. They only hear what is directed to them. They don’t hear what is directed at anybody else. I am coaching them the same. I am happy (Harrow) is back.”
Calipari also noted it’s unfair to compare Harrow, who has played only a small portion of one game at UK, to the finished products his previous point guards became.
“They are all different,” he said. “… He is not expected to be those guys. Nerlens (Noel) is not expected to be Anthony (Davis), nor was he expected to be Marcus Camby. I coach them all to play to their strengths and try to help them be the best version of themselves. That is never talked about within.”
A couple of Kentucky’s recent standouts can relate to what both the coach and the player are going through. Pistons guard Brandon Knight says playing the position at Kentucky is “tough.”
“(Calipari) makes it tough,” he told FOX Sports Detroit. “You're coming out of high school, you're babied a lot. He just doesn't allow you to be babied. He makes it tough on you. He shows that you're the leader of the team and he's going to put a lot on you, but he only does it because he knows you can handle it. That's why he recruited you, that's why he wanted you to be part of the team in the first place. So it's all a maturity process and a growing process. But he's great at tearing you down and picking you back up."
The lure of playing point for Calipari was so strong for Eric Bledsoe, the former Alabama high school standout signed with the Wildcats knowing he’d have to yield minutes to top prospect John Wall and play most of his one season in Lexington out of position.
“(Calipari) didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear like most colleges did,” Bledsoe said. “He told me it was going to be tough and hard. Coming in, it wasn’t going to be easy.”
For the time being, it remains to be seen how Harrow fits into UK’s plans. Calipari says Goodwin is the Wildcats’ starting point guard. A 6-foot-5 slasher in the Evans mold, Goodwin flirted with a triple-double in Kentucky’s recent 104-75 win over LIU-Brooklyn. He scored 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds and dished out nine assists.
“He’s earned the position and he is our point guard,” Calipari said. “Now, he isn’t our only point guard. We have three point guards … You can have two point guards on the floor at the same time, which is even better against zone, against pressing, so it’s good for us. He is doing good learning the position and getting better game to game, so he has earned his spot.”