Confident Andrew Harrison keeps UK unbeaten

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's not easy being Andrew Harrison.

Sure, he's the point guard on the No. 1 team in the country, the guy who helped lead Kentucky to the national title game last year as a freshman and someone with an NBA future. But no player in college basketball has been more scrutinized over the past two seasons than the sometimes enigmatic sophomore. Studying his mannerisms and facial expressions has become a master's course in Lexington, and fans at various times fret over whether he's too selfish or too passive.

There was even a brief but popular public outcry in late December that freshman Tyler Ulis should take over the team after Harrison struggled in a win over Louisville.

"I've heard it all," Harrison said.

One thing hadn't been said about Harrison much lately: a Kentucky victory depended on his shot-making skills. But that's exactly what happened Tuesday night in a 69-58 win over Georgia, as a newly assertive and confident Harrison scored a season-high 23 points. He also sank a career-best three 3-pointers and made sure the Wildcats (22-0, 9-0 SEC) held off a late charge by the short-handed Bulldogs.

Harrison entered the game shooting just 34.2 percent from the floor -- worst among Kentucky's regulars -- and had reached double figures in points only once since Dec. 27. When he scored this season, it often came through what head coach John Calipari called "bully ball," as the 6-foot-6 guard would plow into the lane hoping to get fouled.

But Harrison recently decided to rediscover his stroke, and that prompted a call home. His father, Aaron Sr., drove to Lexington from his Richmond, Texas, residence a few days ago and worked with Andrew the past couple of nights at the Wildcats' practice facility.

"I guess because we've been working at basketball together forever, he called me and said, ‘Hey, Dad, let's get some time in the gym,'" the elder Aaron said. "It was just confidence. [We did] the same drills we've been doing since he was probably 7 or 8 years old."

Calipari has also tasked assistant coach Kenny Payne to shadow Harrison before and after practice, getting Harrison to use his legs more on his shot instead of jumping off his tiptoes. Be ready to attack when the ball comes to you, Calipari told his point guard, and don't just pull it back out to reset the offense.

Those lessons crystallized just in time against Georgia. Already missing small forward Trey Lyles, who has been out two games with an undisclosed illness, Kentucky got a rare off game from sharpshooter Devin Booker (1-for-6 on 3s) and a stink bomb from Andrew's twin brother, Aaron (1 point, 0-for-4 from the field).

The Bulldogs, who played for the second straight game without leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton (concussion), managed to rally from an 18-point second-half deficit to get within 63-58 with two minutes left. Calipari ditched his platoon system and played Ulis and both Harrisons together for long stretches in the second half. Andrew's offense and the best all-around effort in SEC play by Karl-Anthony Towns (15 points, 13 rebounds and three assists) prevented the Wildcats from getting even more of a scare.

"I took it upon myself to do a little bit more, whether that was shooting the ball or creating," Andrew Harrison said.

Though he tied a career high with 16 shots, he also dished out seven assists with only one turnover.

"[If] he misses some shots, I'm not saying anything," Calipari said. "I want him to be more aggressive. It isn't like he's being selfish."

Lyles may not be available again when Kentucky begins its toughest two-game stretch of conference season -- at Florida on Saturday, followed by a trip to LSU. While the Wildcats' still have seven McDonald's All-Americans without Lyles, Harrison's improved shooting and attacking mindset could loom large on the upcoming road swing.

"When he pushes the ball, he's a great player," Ulis said of Harrison. "He had a great game tonight, and you can see what he can do. I don't think anybody really pays attention to what other people have to say."

The one place Harrison knows he can escape the noise is with his family. The elder Aaron flew up to Lexington to visit his boys before the SEC tournament last year, sensing they were bogged down by the pressure of living up to NBA expectations. Andrew went on to play his best in the postseason, as Kentucky turned things around and went on a run to the brink of a title.

"This is some of the stuff we worked on last year," the elder Aaron said. "I don't know if he lost his confidence this year. Maybe last year. He's just been rolling along. It's a new team, a new system, and things are different."

About an hour after Tuesday's game, the Harrison twins met up with their parents in a Rupp Arena hallway. Andrew and his dad munched out of the same pack of Twizzlers, and the family discussed where they could go for a late snack. On this night, at least, it didn't seem so hard being Andrew Harrison.