Harrison, Walton key in Elite Eight runs

INDIANAPOLIS -- During his team’s Saturday afternoon news conference, John Calipari polled his players only hours after they knocked off rival Louisville in the Sweet 16 to earn a shot at Michigan in a Sunday matchup at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“Raise your hand if this is really hard?” Calipari asked.

Andrew Harrison, sitting to the coach’s left on the podium, raised both hands.

It’s not easy for an 18-year-old to be the leader of young men -- a situation that Michigan’s Derrick Walton Jr. understands too -- but that’s who he has become for a program that needed one.

“He’s just doing a great job leading us,” Julius Randle said. “When things get tough, he’s picking us up.”

There was a five-month gap between the amalgamation of Kentucky’s potential and the tornado of talent that finally blended in time to whip three good teams on its way to the Elite Eight. Kentucky is always projected as a national title contender. But the preseason hype for this team was unprecedented because Calipari lured the most star-studded recruiting class in college basketball history to Lexington.

The young Wildcats were supposed to win. Every night. Regardless of the opponent. And when that didn’t happen, the pressure spiraled into criticism calamity. Andrew Harrison was in the middle of that downpour.

The point guard -- a position that automatically suggests leadership even if it doesn’t fit that player’s qualities -- has to guide those around him. Andrew Harrison recognized the significance of that role from the day he arrived in Lexington last August. But the idea that he just inherited that leadership slot, he said, is false.

“What people don’t understand -- people think, ‘Oh, you’re the point guard and you’re going to become the leader,’” Harrison said. “But at the same time, you have to earn it. You have to do something to earn your teammates’ respect, whether it’s stand up to somebody or speak up for them -- you have to do that, and I think I did that eventually.”

Despite the early scrutiny, Harrison ultimately proved that he was ready by navigating through the season’s drama and playing his best basketball when the games mattered most. He’s averaging 13.6 points, 5.0 assists and 3.6 rebounds through three tourney games. He has had various struggles during this stretch (11-for-26 from the field, 14 turnovers). But he also has delivered for the Wildcats when they needed him. In Friday’s win over Louisville, he scored eight points and threw an alley-oop to James Young during a crucial five-minute stretch that revived Kentucky. And that wasn’t necessarily his most crucial contribution to this young team.

That came during timeouts in the final minutes.

“He was just telling us that we will win this game if we just keep fighting,” Aaron Harrison said. “He led us.”

Youth is the fabric of Sunday’s Kentucky-Michigan matchup. Michigan’s most important veterans are just sophomores. Kentucky starts five freshmen.

Both coaches understand the challenges that arise when a squad must rely on a young point guard.

Walton initially faced as much pressure as anyone on his roster. Last year, the Wolverines reached the national title game via the dynamic performances of Wooden Award winner Trey Burke. Walton had to follow in those footsteps.

“Coming in, I felt a little pressure because he did a great job at his position,” Walton said. “But over the course of the season, my teammates did a great job letting me know that they’re with me every step of the way.”

Walton didn’t attempt to commandeer a leadership position. He didn’t demand it. John Beilein already had a strong unit of returning players he could trust. Yet, he couldn’t run his stuff without a point guard he believed in.

So Walton wooed the Wolverines with his work ethic and focus. And now the freshman, who is averaging 7.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists in the NCAA tournament, has so much respect on this roster that he’s calling plays now without asking Beilein for approval.

“His brand started the first day he came on campus, how he took care of his business, how he approached study hall, how he went to class, how he responded to coaches critiquing him,” Beilein said. “As he built that brand, everybody, sort of, is watching that thing. Now when he’s calling signals, we’re trusting him with the ball. He’s put so many deposits into that bank of trust.”

No matter what happens on Sunday, youth will be woven into the dominant storyline. Neither team is stacked with seniors. Both rosters feature standouts who won’t last four years -- some of Kentucky’s players could be gone after next weekend -- but continue to excel on the most intense stage of any college basketball season. To continue on this path and reach the Final Four, both programs will turn to a pair of young point guards who’ve showcased tangible growth in recent weeks and months.

“For him to keep just growing his game and seeing this has just been fantastic,” Beilein said. “He’s a really bright kid.”

You could say the same about Andrew Harrison, too.