Opposing centers play pivotal roles
NEWARK — They are the two “old-timers’’ on rosters where freshmen have played the starring roles. Not that Tyler Zeller, North Carolina’s 7-foot junior center, or Josh Harrellson, Kentucky’s 6-10 senior pivot, need to play secondary roles on teams that meet today with a Final Four berth on the line.
That certainly wasn’t the case Friday night when Zeller dominated the proceedings early and often, with 27 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals in the Tar Heels’ 81-63 romp over Marquette in an NCAA East Regional semifinal.
And it wasn’t the case a few hours later as Harrellson proved to be a catalyst on offense and defense, scoring 17 points and pulling down 10 rebounds while doing a reasonable job of bothering Ohio State super freshman Jared Sullinger. The result was a 62-60 Kentucky victory highlighted by freshman guard Brandon Knight’s winning basket.
The end result is that Harrellson and Zeller will joust this afternoon to determine the regional champion.
“The one thing this team does better than almost every team I’ve had is listen,’’ said Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Few of Calipari’s players do that better than Harrellson, who came to Kentucky through the junior college route and has resided in the doghouse of both Calipari and former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie since arriving in Lexington three years ago.
There have been some rough times. Gillispie, who has since moved on to Texas Tech, was so frustrated by Harrellson’s effort that in a game at Vanderbilt two years ago, he made Harrellson sit in a toilet stall at halftime and then ride back to campus after the game in the equipment truck.
Fast-forward to last fall, and Kentucky’s blue-white scrimmage. Harrellson, now a veteran player about to begin his last season, made a sarcastic Twitter post in response to Calipari’s comments about his rebounding.
Coach Cal didn’t appreciate it. He made Harrellson place his Twitter account on hold and Calipari ordered him to report 30 minutes before every practice for conditioning drills.
“I about threw him off the team,’’ said Calipari, laughing now about something that wasn’t funny six months ago. “But he worked so hard and all of sudden his body changed.
“It’s not what I did, it’s what he did. His body changed. The extra work got his skills better.
“Josh went from the jokester, the prankster in practice to a guy that comes early and trains for 30 minutes before we start. And then works his butt off and encourages his team to work versus pull back the practice.
“He has totally changed his body. He totally changed his approach to practice. He’s totally changed his skill level. And what’s happened is, you see a different result. You see a player that’s had as big an impact on college basketball as anybody right now.’’
Harrellson said holding his own against Sullinger — generally regarded as the best freshman in the country — will help him deal with Zeller, whom he faced once this season, in a 75-73 loss in Chapel Hill in December.
“He scored a lot on me,’’ said Harrellson. “He got me in foul trouble. So hopefully I am going to just try to stay out of foul trouble, play big, and play like I did [Friday] night. Just play strong and just try to outwork him.’’
Zeller has his own story of development and change.
“My freshman year was a great year,’’ he said. “I didn’t do a whole lot. I was injured most of the year. But to be part of the ride [to the national championship] was an amazing ride. And the team was a great team.
“Last year was very difficult [the Tar Heels did not even make the NCAA field]. I mean, we had a mediocre start and we kind of plummeted and then we put ourselves in the NIT.
“And then this year, we started off 4-3 and then 6-4. And then we had a meeting and our team chemistry got better. We all pulled together.’’
This afternoon, the Tar Heels will try to pull together again against a Kentucky team that will pull back just as hard.
All that’s at stake is a berth in the Final Four.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at email@example.com.