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Missouri native Harrellson reaching NCAA peak

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Missouri native Harrellson reaching NCAA peak

Post  BestdamnUKfanperiod on Thu Mar 31, 2011 7:12 am

Missouri native Harrellson reaching NCAA peak

ST. LOUIS -- Josh Harrellson's summer workouts with Alex Tyus, a fellow St. Louis-area talent who was on his way to becoming a top hoops recruit for the University of Florida, made him realize he could be more than just a player known for his persistence.

Harrellson had finished his senior season at St. Charles High and become fast friends with Tyus, who played for nearby Hazelwood Central, after meeting him at a prep all-star game. They scrimmaged against each other once or twice a week to fine-tune their focus.

Harrellson had signed a letter of intent with Western Illinois before his senior season. He knew Tyus was bound for big things, so Harrellson wanted to gauge his skills against a promising prospect. After matching up with him, Harrellson was unfazed.

"You're not that much better than me," Harrellson recalls saying at the time.

Harrellson has reached college basketball's peak. On Saturday the 6-foot-10, 275-pound forward will be Kentucky's lone senior when the Wildcats face Connecticut at the Final Four in Houston.

Some players travel the straight path of AAU and high school stardom to hallowed Rupp Arena. Harrellson isn't one of those. Moments such as the workouts with Tyus planted a seed of ambition that pushed the carefree kid from St. Charles, a St. Louis suburb, beyond his comfort zone and into the national consciousness. He learned to embrace lessons along the way.

Long before "Jorts" became part of college basketball's lexicon, the St. Louis-area coaches who molded him knew he could one day thrive under the sport's brightest lights. Now Harrellson stands two victories away from becoming a national champion.

"It was a long road," he said. "Keep pushing and persevere and good things will happen."

Raw talent

Harrellson was big. That remains Gary Wacker's first impression of his former player.

Harrellson entered St. Charles High's program at about 6-foot-4 with all the physical tools needed to become a force in the paint. Wacker remembers Harrellson's strong hands and feet complemented his deceptive speed.

Yet, Harrellson's talent was raw. The visual evidence was obvious.

"He couldn't shoot a left-handed layup," said Wacker, Harrellson's coach at St. Charles. "And that's not exaggerating."

As time went on, Harrellson grew in a way that allowed him to imagine a future in basketball beyond high school. By the middle of his junior season he thought about playing in college for the first time, because there was a possibility he might not continue his education otherwise. Suddenly, he worked to improve his game with the goal of self-improvement beyond the court in mind.

Harrellson's junior season was a turning point. He built muscle mass and grew about four inches. He said he went from averaging 10 points and seven rebounds the year before to 21 and 13 each time his bruising body hit the floor.

The progress drew interest from recruiters. Western Illinois invited Harrellson to visit campus before the start of his senior season.

Wacker knew the courtship process was new to Harrellson, so the coach tried to keep his wide-eyed player grounded. Wacker had one piece of advice: Be patient.

"Don't commit, because there are other people who want to see you too," Wacker recalled saying.

Harrellson heard but didn't listen. A free spirit, Harrellson committed to Western Illinois on the visit and sensed Wacker's disappointment upon telling him the news.

"During his senior year, I think he realized that he could play higher," Wacker said. "That's why he wanted to get out of Western Illinois."

Harrellson came to Southwestern Illinois College before the 2007-08 season. He decided against enrolling at Western Illinois because he wanted to try to earn a scholarship to a larger school. He chose to attend the junior college in Belleville, Ill., to avoid sitting out a season because of NCAA transfer rules.

A strong supporting cast nurtured Harrellson's development as a freshman. Harrellson played alongside future Minnesota guard Devron Bostick and future Alabama forward Chris Hines.

"With those three," said Jay Harrington, Harrellson's coach at Southwestern Illinois, "every night was an exciting night."

As his minutes mounted, Harrellson become more comfortable handling the ball with his left hand. He also stretched his shooting range closer to the perimeter.

Harrellson's decision to bypass Western Illinois proved to be a strategic one. He signed with Kentucky in April 2008, giving then-Wildcats coach Billy Gillispie a sizable presence near the basket.

An invitation to join the storied Southeastern Conference program served as validation of Harrellson's outlook on life. He pushed. He persevered. And yes, something good happened. He's averaging 7.6 points and 8.8 rebounds for one of the best teams in the country.

"This is what you can be if you work hard enough," Harrington says, "and if you don't fear failure."

Still growing

Earlier this week, Harrellson thought back to how his St. Charles roots carved him into the person he is today.

He remembers being a quick wit in high school. He flashed goofy grins when the classroom was too quiet. Teachers told him he had a big heart. He embraced the class-clown role.

"I love life to the fullest," Harrellson said. "You have to take advantage of every chance you get. I think I've done that my whole life. Every opportunity I've had to do something, I went and did it."

Harrellson's personality has led to a few tense moments during his time in Lexington. As punishment for passive play, he rode home on the equipment truck after a loss at Vanderbilt in 2009. And last October, Coach John Calipari suspended Harrellson from Twitter after the player complained over the social network that he wasn't praised enough in practice.

"Josh Harrellson figured out, by a little bit of prodding, that if I want my performance to be different, I have to change my body, my habits, my mind," Calipari said in a recent video mailbag on FOXSportsSouth.com.

"He changed how he thinks."

That change represents the latest evolution of the persistent player who traveled a wandering path to college basketball's grandest stage. Harrellson will play in the Final Four. His St. Louis-area coaches knew he could go a long way.

http://www.foxsportsmidwest.com/03/30/11/Missouri-native-Harrellson-reaching-NCAA/landing.html?blockID=494021&feedID=3794
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