MANHATTAN — Aaron Harrison Sr. didn’t celebrate when he learned his twin sons were headed to the NCAA Tournament. Not even a little.
Instead, he squirmed at the sight of who they will face in their opening game on Friday in St. Louis.
On one side of the court, he will cheer for his sons Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison Jr., the star freshmen who make up No. 8-seed Kentucky’s backcourt. On the other end, he will quietly support Wesley Iwundu, the freshman forward who has started 31 games for No. 9-seed Kansas State. Harrison coached all three when they were growing up in Texas and playing for the Houston Defenders AAU program.
“That’s three of my children going against each other,” Harrison said by phone. “I have no good feelings about it. When they flashed the teams on TV I didn’t see Kansas State, I saw Wesley. I would rather see Kentucky play Florida again. Those three are very close, nothing less than brothers.”
That will make for an interesting reunion at the Scottrade Center.
Iwundu said the NCAA Tournament bracket has already brought back plenty of memories. He has known the Harrison family for nearly a decade. As soon as the field of 68 was revealed, he started sending group texts to his former AAU teammates. He is looking forward to playing against his friends instead of with them.
“It’s going to be fun,” Iwundu said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun ... They are very tough and they have a lot of upside.”
The odds of the Harrison twins and Iwundu meeting in a college game weren’t good. Andrew and Aaron Jr. were two of the most highly recruited high school players in the nation last year. They were both five-star prospects, and when they made it clear that they were going to attend the same the college, coaches drooled over the can’t-miss package deal. Recruiters followed the Defenders everywhere, until they committed to Kentucky.
They were expected to help Kentucky compete for a national championship right away and then leave for the NBA. But a down year has left Kentucky with a middle seed and the Harrisons’ NBA plans in question. Andrew, a point guard, is averaging 10.8 points and 3.8 assists. Aaron Jr., a shooting guard, is averaging 13.8 points and 2.1 assists.
“They had a rough start,” Harrison Sr. said. “Coach Calipari, I don’t know why he was coaching the way he was, screaming and yelling at them after every play. They weren’t playing against the other team. They were playing against the coach. But ever since he changed his method, they have done really well.”
At K-State, Iwundu was expected to contribute early. And he did by averaging 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds as a starter. But there was no telling whether K-State would make the NCAA Tournament during his first year.
Everything lined up.
“I never thought this would happen,” Iwundu said.
He’s glad it did. Though they followed different recruitment paths, Iwundu and the Harrison twins helped each other throughout the process.
Iwundu knew Andrew and Aaron Jr. were going to pick Kentucky a month before they announced their decision. Andrew and Aaron Jr. encouraged Iwundu to sign with K-State. They all benefited from exposure and friendly advice.
“We had a lot of attention on us,” Iwundu said. “We played one ESPN game. It was fun throughout my whole AAU career.”
Harrison Sr. has humorous stories to tell about Iwundu. He joined the Defenders when he was 11 and played alongside the Harrison twins for years. But Iwundu grew at an unusual rate, shooting up seven inches during a single year in high school. That left his knees weak, and he was often unable to play. He ultimately grew into his 6-foot-7 body and became a three-star prospect, capable of impacting games inside and out. In between, though, he took on the role of assistant coach, suggesting plays to Harrison Sr. and challenged his substitution patterns.
“He learned the game over there on the bench,” Harrison Sr. said. “Then he blossomed into a player who was getting a lot of offers. It was fun to watch.”
Iwundu’s bond with the Harrison twins made the journey even more enjoyable.
“I can’t even explain to you how often Wesley was at our house,” Harrison Sr. said. “It got to the point where I would come home and Wesley would be over. He could walk through the door and not ring the doorbell. It didn’t matter who was home, Andrew, Aaron or just my wife. He was always welcome and still is.”