ARLINGTON, Texas — With 5.7 seconds remaining Saturday night Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison added another critical shot to his NCAA tournament resume, hitting the three-pointer that gave the Wildcats the 74-73 win over No. 2 Wisconsin. Harrison didn’t shoot particularly well, making three of his eight attempts on the night, but he made the big one and as a result Kentucky will play for a national title for the second time in three years.
But if not for a player who could best be described as enigmatic over his two seasons in Lexington, there’s a chance that John Calipari’s team isn’t in this spot.
Alex Poythress has been, at times, a maddening player to observe. While the physical tools are there, as evidenced by his being a McDonald’s All-American out of high school, the “fire” needed to be a dominant player isn’t always present. However during the NCAA tournament Poythress has been a key reserve for Kentucky, and that was once again the case in the second half against Wisconsin.
Poythress scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in the second half, finishing the game with eight points and seven rebounds. The numbers by themselves aren’t particularly impressive, but the combination of production and activity helped Kentucky get in position to win the game in the final seconds. After being an inconsistent player for much of the season, Poythress has stepped forward during the NCAA tournament.
“I think one, Marcus Lee kind of woke him up,” Calipari said of Poythress following the win. “Like, ‘if Marcus Lee can do that, I can do that.’ Everyone on this team is waiting for him to break out like he did and like he is now.”
In five NCAA tournament games Poythress hasn’t received a high number of scoring opportunities, and that isn’t a surprise given the fact that he’s averaging 5.9 points per game on the season. But he’s done well with the opportunities he’s earned during the tournament, shooting 13-for-17 from the field (he hasn’t missed a shot since the Wichita State game) and averaging 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds per contest.
“He’s in the best shape of his life,” Calipari noted. “Mentally, he’s in a great place mentally. He’s playing fearless and he’s just almost reckless, which is great for him because of his athleticism. I texted him before because I had a bunch of my friends say he’s going to have a big game. I texted him, ‘this is what they’re saying, man, I love you.’
“He said, ‘I love you, coach, let’s go have some fun.’ And he went out there and played great.”
Much has been made about whatever “tweaks” Calipari has executed over the last month, with many wondering what exactly those “tweaks” are. But for all the conversation about that aspect of Kentucky’s turnaround, the fact of the matter is that multiple players who struggled at various points in the season are now stepping forward and playing with confidence. Both Harrisons entered the SEC tournament struggling offensively, Lee rarely played and Poythress was inconsistent in the aggression he was playing with.
That all has changed, with a better understanding of what’s expected of them individually helping the team reach the game many expected them play in back in October. The journey certainly hasn’t been as smooth as anticipated, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that a team full of underclassmen would hit some bumps in the road.
Ultimately what matters is how a team responds. After struggling with the next step at times this season, Kentucky’s done a far better job of dealing with tough situations in March and as a result they’re one win away from the program’s ninth national title. And Poythress’ career to date has been a microcosm of this, and over the last three weeks he’s done a better job of simply competing. With that being the case, a sophomore who many felt capable of flipping the switch has played a valuable role in Kentucky’s late-season run.