NEWARK, N.J. - John Calipari cringes when people bring up the subject of one-and-done players, those freshmen who use college basketball merely as a springboard to the NBA.
He’s certainly had his share of them, four last year alone.
But every time newcomers Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb knock down key baskets, it seems that senior big man Josh Harrellson’s offensive rebound made it happen. Or it was junior DeAndre Liggins’ screen that set up the open look. Or Darius Miller providing the assist.
The freshmen have delivered most of the highlights this March, with Knight’s second game-winner of the NCAA tournament lifting the Wildcats past top-seeded Ohio State on Friday night and into the regional finals. But it’s been Billy Gillispie’s holdovers that have been holding everything together, providing the leadership necessary this time of year.
One and done? More like three and won.
Liggins acknowledged that it’s sometimes difficult to watch elite freshmen come in every autumn, taking the minutes that the veterans believe they earned.
It’s one of the reasons he was wary of Calipari taking over.
“I knew how good a recruiter he was and he recruits great players. I just thought he’s a winning coach, so whoever he brings in, we have a chance to compete,” Liggins said.
Liggins has blossomed into one of the premier defenders in college basketball, in part because he spent last season defending players such as Eric Bledsoe and John Wall – who turned pro after their freshman seasons last year – every day. He’s now passing that knowledge on.
Harrellson also has some unique experiences to draw upon.
Two years ago, Gillispie was so frustrated with him during a game at Vanderbilt that he banished him to a bathroom stall at halftime. Calipari was so underwhelmed that he played him a total of 88 minutes last season.
All of it has paid off this postseason, though. The senior had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the first round against Princeton, added 15 points and eight rebounds against West Virginia, then had 17 points and 10 rebounds against Ohio State super freshman Jared Sullinger.
“I never thought I’d be the player I am today,” Harrellson said. “I’m just so thankful for where I am, for the teammates that have been there for me. They’ve had more confidence than I’ve had in myself, and finally I’m playing like I’m capable of playing the last four weeks.”
The Wildcats are playing that way, too. Upperclassmen and newcomers alike.