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Harrow, Wiltjer hoping to turn growing bond into on-court results

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Kyle Wiltjer scored a scrimmage-high 19 points at Big Blue Madness on Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Kyle Wiltjer scored a scrimmage-high 19 points at Big Blue Madness on Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
They are somewhat of an odd couple, Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer.

One is a skinny point guard known best for his flashy ball-handling skills and gravity-defying dunks. The other is a 6-foot-10 big man much more likely to score on a 3-pointer or hook shot than a rim-rattling slam. One sports a flat top inspired by teammate Nerlens Noel, the other a close-cropped hairdo about as traditional as his post moves.

Once they hit the basketball court, though, Harrow and Wiltjer are like kindred spirits.

"I can just run down the floor and know that he's behind me," Harrow said. "I don't even have to look. I can just throw it behind me and he's going to be there to catch it and shoot it and do whatever he has to do."

But where does it come from? How have two players who haven't even played an official college game together yet already developed that kind of on-court telepathy?

Wiltjer and Harrow are both sophomores, but their paths to that class designation have been quite different. Harrow, a native of Marietta, Ga., transferred to Kentucky from North Carolina State, sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Wiltjer grew up almost 2,600 miles away from Harrow in Portland, Ore., before playing a seventh-man role for last year's national championship team as a freshman.

Harrow may have been redshirting last season, but he had something in common with Wiltjer, something that served as a foundation for the pair's relationship. With six players now in the NBA on the 2011-12 roster, Wiltjer was on UK's second team for almost every practice, drill and scrimmage. So too was Harrow.

"People ask us why we're so good at playing together," Wiltjer said. "We had all last year in practice to go against that first unit so we kind of translated this year and really emphasized it early only because we really feel like we can be a big part of this team this year."

That chemistry was on display at Big Blue Madness on Friday. Granted, the scrimmage was closer to a Harlem Globetrotters game than the NCAA Tournament battles they hope to play in this March, but Harrow had 18 points while setting up a good portion of Wiltjer's game-leading 19.

"It's almost like we've been playing together for a long time because we played together so much last year and every time we were in open gym we'd play on the same team," Harrow said. "It's just a natural thing for us now."

In less than four weeks, Harrow and Wiltjer will finally get to put the bond they've built to the test in a regular-season game when the Wildcats face Maryland on Nov. 9. In the meantime, John Calipari is asking them to become even closer, citing a powerful professional example.

"They need to be in practice early together," Calipari said. "They need to be after practice together, kind of doing what (Dirk) Nowitzki and Steve Nash did (when both played for the Dallas Mavericks), where they did their workouts together and they got real comfortable with each other on the court, especially in a late game."

For Wiltjer, the fact that Calipari brings up the two former NBA MVPs is particularly significant. Nowitzki's game is pretty much the model for any sweet-shooting power forward, while Wiltjer knows Nash well. This summer, Wiltjer attended training camp with the Canadian National Team, for which Nash is the general manager.

"I'm pretty good friends with Steve," Wiltjer said. "(Nash and Nowitzki) had a really good relationship off the court and I think that really translated into how well they were able to play on the court. Me and Ryan have sat down with Coach and we've really worked hard at becoming really good on the court, but (also) off the court."

Calipari's comparison of Nash/Nowitzki and Harrow/Wiltjer is more about how he wants them to interact than how he wants them to play, but Harrow sees some common ground in the latter area too.

"Steve Nash can go off the pick and roll so well and he can hit the shot or make a good pass to Dirk," Harrow said. "That's basically what me and Kyle do every day in practice or every day in open gym. He sets the pick for me and, if they don't guard me, I'm going to go score. If they don't guard him, I'm going to throw it to him right away and he's going to knock the shot down."

Calipari has not yet hammered out how his latest team is going to play in the half court, but it's clear that Harrow and Wiltjer are going to play major roles no matter what. Because of that, the connection the two share will help not only themselves, but the team as a whole.

"Me and Ryan have been trying to do that, become close off the court, because that's really key, having a strong relationship with your point guard because he's going to give me the ball in different spots," Wiltjer said. "And when I'm playing well, he's going to be playing well. It will open up for him as well as everybody on the court."

No matter how close they become, don't expect Wiltjer to mimic the hairstyle of his point guard and teammate, but not because he doesn't want to.

"I think if Kyle was able to do it, he would do it," Harrow said.

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