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Kentucky freshmen get rid of their tournament nerves

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 22, 2014, at 7:18 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 18, 2014, at 11:39 a.m.

— Andrew Harrison could be the poster child for nervous freshmen in the NCAA Tournament.

His first taste of March Madness was filled with jitters, and everyone at the Scottrade Center could tell.

Because of a rare pregame technical foul against Kansas State, the freshman point guard started the game at the free-throw line instead of center court. Fans inside the packed arena screamed as he attempted to give Kentucky a 2-0 lead before the opening tip. But he made one of two shots. His first attempt wasn’t close.

“I was a little nervous, as you could see. I almost airballed the first free throw,” Harrison said. “But after that, you start sweating and it’s just like any other game.”

Harrison responded well enough to help Kentucky beat K-State 56-49 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but his missed free throw was a sign of individual struggles to come. He went on to lose a game-high six turnovers. He also injured his right elbow, leaving his status for Sunday’s game against Wichita State in the round of 32 up in the air, though he said he plans to play.

He hopes he is healthy enough to take on the Shockers.

Much like every member of Kentucky’s starting five -- all highly touted freshmen with NBA potential -- he is excited to play a NCAA Tournament game free of nerves.

“There were a little bit of nerves going for me,” Kentucky center Dakari Johnson said. “I’m just glad I got it out of the way so I can be more comfortable in the next game.”

Comfort wasn’t a factor for all of Kentucky’s freshmen. Though Harrison had his faults and Johnson went scoreless, Julius Randle — perhaps the nation’s top freshman power forward — had 19 points and 15 rebounds. Harrison’s brother, Aaron, scored 18 points.

Still, the first few moments were sub-par for everyone. Even with its bonus point, Kentucky trailed 8-5 more than six minutes in.

“At the beginning there were a lot of little things going on,” Aaron Harrison said. “All of us freshmen were nervous. It was win or go home. We were all excited and a little nervous, but once we got up and down the court a few times the butterflies go away and you can just play basketball. We probably won’t have any of those this game. We can just calm down and play basketball.”

Relaxed emotions could lead to bigger production for Kentucky’s young roster, but Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall doesn’t think that will be a factor.

He said matching up with Kentucky’s bigger and taller roster would be a challenge no matter the scenario.

“Perhaps they got a game underneath their belt, maybe they are a little more confident,” Marshall said. “But those Kentucky freshmen, I don’t think confidence is an issue with them. It never has been.”

That’s true. Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball, expects to win every time it takes the floor. Even against an undefeated opponent.

But there’s a difference between confidence and experience. Kentucky’s freshmen have more of both entering their second NCAA Tournament game.

“Two years ago we started three freshmen and they could lose themselves into the team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Two of the guys didn’t care about scoring, and when we got our point guard under control and playing, truly running our team and becoming what they do, we became a good team and they all kind of got lost in each other. We were a pretty good team.

“This team, we need more time. I wish we had another month to really get them to lose it in each other. But you know what? The switch turned quickly. A couple of different little tweaks and they can run with them.”

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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