A lot of John Calipari’s best players at Kentucky have not really had a “breakthrough” game, so to speak. John Wall’s breakthrough game was his very first in the uniform when he knocked down a game-winning shot in the final seconds against Miami (OH). However, when you become a superstar in your first-ever college game, I’m not sure if it qualifies as “breaking though”. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (among others) were superstars from the day they stepped foot on campus. None of these players really went through a period of time where they struggled before having a breakthrough game which carried over through the rest of their season or career at Kentucky.
After Calipari’s first three seasons at Kentucky, perhaps we’ve been a little spoiled and now expect too much out of freshman from the very first day they step on campus. For every player who seemingly makes the transition to playing college basketball at Kentucky with ease under Calipari, there is another who struggles initially, or spends time watching from the bench before their opportunity arises.
Last night against Missouri, it was a breakthrough game for the team collectively. It was the first time all season that Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress all played so well together in one game.
Below are three notable breakthrough games in the Calipari era prior to this season, listed in no particular order of significance:
Josh Harrellson vs. Louisville, 2010-11
After averaging 4 minutes and 1.3 ppg in his junior season, playing behind big men DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Perry Stevenson, Harrellson’s opportunity finally arrived his senior season when Enes Kanter was declared ineligible by the NCAA. Like Jarrod Polson earlier this season, Harrellson started playing out of necessity, but proved his worth on the court on New Year’s Eve in the Yum Center against Louisville. Harrellson scored 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds against rival Louisville. That game alone would have etched him in Big Blue lore, but he continued to play a key role for the Cats. Harrellson scored in double figures in all four of UK’s NCAA tournament wins and recorded double-doubles against Princeton and Ohio State to help Kentucky reach its first Final Four since 1998.
Darius Miller vs. Florida at Rupp, 2010-11
Throughout Darius Miller’s career at Kentucky, he showed spurts of greatness, but his inconsistency earned him nicknames such as “Disappearius” and “Re-appearius” Miller. In late February against Florida at Rupp Arena, Darius Miller scored 24 in what may had been his best performance to date against a quality opponent. UK avenged an earlier loss in Gainesville and Miller followed up his strong outing against the Gators with six consecutive games in double figures through the SEC tournament and ending with a 17-point outing which helped UK get past Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Miller won SEC tournament MVP and went on to be a key leader and sixth man in UK’s National Championship team the following season.
Terrence Jones vs. South Carolina, 2011-12
After an abysmal performance at Indiana, Terrence Jones was held scoreless in 10 minutes against Chattanooga and sat out the next two games with a bad finger. He was asked infamously by Jerry Tipton if he was using the finger as a crutch, or excuse for his poor stretch of games. When he returned, he continued to struggle for the next three games, including only 2 points on 1-of-9 shooting against Louisville. Jones had a breakthrough performance, scoring 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting, in the SEC opener against South Carolina. Jones continued to be a steady contributor for Kentucky all the way through the National Championship run to New Orleans.
This season has been one of many struggles and breakthroughs, some of which have happened too recently (like yesterday) to be able to tell if they have any long-term significance. Below is a list of the most notable breakthrough games this season, and in no way am I comparing them to the players above.
Jarrod Polson vs. Maryland
Jarrod Polson played 22 minutes in this season’s opener against Maryland at the Barclays Center. It marked the first time Polson, a junior, had played so many meaningful minutes against a quality opponent in his career at UK, which started as a walk-on. He hit four-of-five shots from the field and nailed two free throws to seal the victory in the final seconds, finishing with 10 points, 3 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal, and 0 turnovers. Polson earned minutes early in the season out of necessity during Ryan Harrow’s absence, but surprisingly has continued to contribute throughout the entire season.
Ryan Harrow vs. Louisville and Missouri
Ryan Harrow has had his ups and downs all season long, but his 17 points against Louisville was the first time he proved what he was capable of doing against a quality opponent. It wasn’t until Harrow’s fifth game that he posted more than 2 points this season. In his sixth game against Lipscomb he scored 12, then seemingly broke through with 23 points against Marshall and then 17 to keep UK competitive on the road vs. Louisville. Harrow would continue giving a consistent quality effort for the next 11 games before going scoreless in back-to-back games against Florida and Tennessee. The last two games, he has bounced back with 12 points against Vanderbilt and then 16 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists against Missouri. Perhaps the complete effort shown against Missouri could end up being the biggest of breakthroughs for Ryan Harrow, but it’s hard to say because he has had such games in the past that were not followed with desirable results.
Alex Poythress vs. Missouri
It is true that Alex Poythress scored 20 points or more in four of his first five college games, including 20 against Duke. But before last night, he only had one other 20-point performance (vs. LSU) all season. Leading up to his 21-point effort against Missouri, Poythress had failed to reach double figures in six consecutive games. Of course, we have no way of knowing the long-term or big picture significance of this game for Poythress, but here’s hoping it is the start of something great for himself and his teammates who all had breakthrough games (save Wiltjer and Polson) in one way or another against Missouri.
Archie Goodwin’s Outside Shooting vs. Missouri:
Archie Goodwin, like Harrow, has had his ups and downs all year and it’s hard to pin point one breakthrough game, but if you had to it would be the two three-point shots he made in three attempts last night against Missouri. Goodwin was actually not a bad three-point shooter early in the season, hitting four of his first six attempts in the first three games against Maryland, Duke and Lafayette. Goodwin also made three of five attempts against Louisville from long range, but then went on a 1-for-23 slump entering last night’s game. We don’t need or want Archie to be shooting too often from three-point range, but he will need the confidence going forward to be able to hit them when open, as he did last night.
Willie Cauley-Stein vs. Vanderbilt, Last Week
Willie Cauley-Stein’s previous season high in scoring was 14 points in November and he was coming off a forgetful 2-point effort at Tennessee, his first game stepping in as UK’s primary big man without Nerlens Noel. In his second game since Noel’s injury, Cauley-Stein posted a personal-best 20-point, 7 rebound, 4 block performance to keep UK’s NCAA tournament hopes alive. Like Poythress, we still don’t know the big picture significance of this game, but we know that in the short term it was huge. Nobody knows for sure where UK’s season will end up going, but without Cauley-Stein’s 20 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks against Vanderbilt, UK loses a third straight game and the team likely doesn’t have the confidence going forward to make any kind of run at all into the tournament without Nerlens Noel.