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Notes: Aaron Harrison's defense fueling his offense

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Aaron Harrison scored 18 points in UK's win over Kansas State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scored 18 points in UK's win over Kansas State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS - Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. In Aaron Harrison's case, his defense has revitalized his struggling offense.

The freshman shooting guard is averaging 14.0 points per game during the postseason, pretty close to his regular-season form, but he's rediscovered his shot over the last four games as he's honed in on defense and stopped worrying so much about the other side of the floor.

After making just 9 of 31 shots in his final three regular-season games, he's connected on 24 of 48 attempts during the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.

"When I'm playing against a really good scorer and he's not really scoring and I'm playing good defense, I think that takes a lot off me if I'm not playing good offensively," Aaron Harrison said.

Aaron Harrison scored 18 points in Kentucky's win over Kansas State on Friday night in the Cats' opening game of the NCAA Tournament, but it was his defense on K-State's leading scorer, Marcus Foster, that got John Calipari's praise.

"See, you guys are looking at his numbers offensively, but he is also guarding the best offensive player every game and still scoring," Coach Cal said.

Calipari never challenged Aaron Harrison to become UK's lockdown defender. Rather, it was Aaron Harrison who took on the role late in the year out of a desire to win.

"I think I just took that on as a focus because I knew I would need to bring that if we wanted to make a run," he said. "I know we all want to make a run and I just want to do everything I can for the team."

UK was allowing 69.1 points per game during the regular season but hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 67 points or shoot better than 44.7 percent during the postseason.

Aaron Harrison's defense has a lot to do with that, but he said he's been able to take more chances on the perimeter because of the return of Willie Cauley-Stein's shot-blocking presence inside. The more shots Cauley-Stein swats, the more gambles the guards can take on the outside.

"He blocks everything when he sets his mind to it," Aaron Harrison said. "It's really tough to score on us when he's in the game. When he blocks a shot, that's pretty much an outlet pass for the fast break really."

Aaron Harrison has been one of the biggest benefactors of the defense-turned offense. It's allowed him to take his mind off the pressure to score and just go play.

Both sides of the floor have benefitted from the change in focus.

"When we get stops we get out and run, and I think that's when we're the best," Aaron Harrison said. "When we get stops and get some transition buckets, the game's more fun and it just makes us a better team and a better team in transition. That's our strength."

Stretch 'em out


UK will have a sizeable height advantage both inside and out for the second straight game, a challenge for Wichita State that isn't lost on its head coach, Gregg Marshall.

"They're bigger, and inch for inch, pound for pound, more athletic," Marshall said.

 Of Wichita's State's main rotation players, only two stand 6-foot-9 or taller. By comparison, Kentucky boasts five players who are 6-9 or taller, including two 7-footers. The height trickles all the way down to the guards.

"I saw on the scouting report the shortest starter they had was 6-6 and you don't see that hardly anywhere in the country," said the 6-foot-3 Ron Baker, who also said that he's never seen a 19-year-old as big as Julius Randle in his life.

Kentucky's size advantage, of course, is nothing new for the Cats. They've enjoyed a plus-9.9 average rebounding margin this season - second in the country -- in part because they are simply bigger, taller and longer than just about any team in the country.

Marshall is hoping Cleanthony Early, who is 6-8, 218 pounds and more of pop-out power forward, can match up with UK's size.

"Well, I hope so," Marshall said. "I mean, there is nothing really I can do. I can't stretch them out tonight. I can't put them on one of those old medieval contraptions and try to stretch them. We're just going to do with what we have got and play our guys we have on the roster. I can't make any trades or pull anybody out of Triple-A. We will just go with what we have got and hopefully that's good enough."

Wichita State faced - and beat - a bruising Tennessee team early in the season, but as Marshall pointed out Saturday, while the Volunteers' Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have tree trunks for legs, their limbs don't exactly reach as high as UK's.

"These guys are like a total eclipse when you go in there," Marshall said. "It is a different deal. And they are much more vertical. (Willie) Cauley-Stein is a vertical guy. Maymon is a wall builder. Jarnell Stokes at 6-7 is talented but not as big as (Dakari) Johnson."

Randle still finding himself

Julius Randle broke out a brief funk in the SEC Tournament with his 21st double-double on Friday, the most ever by a UK freshman, but Calipari believes he's still only scratched the surface.

"He is a guy that is still trying to find who he is as a player," Coach Cal said. "And I was trying to help him and didn't' do a very good job until hopefully now, trying to get him to figure out exactly how he needs to play to have success both for himself and his team."

Randle is leading the team in scoring and rebounding while raking in a number of postseason awards, including SEC Freshman of the Year and U.S. Basketball Writers Association Freshman All-America Team honors.

He's done all that while facing a myriad of double and triple teams.

"He's a great kid," Calipari said. "He's really - he's gotten better."

Countering chemistry and experience


Chief among the long list of differences between Kentucky and Wichita State is experience.

The majority of the Shockers' key pieces from their Final Four run of a year ago returned this season, only strengthening an already close-knit group. While Marshall has a number of good players, some even NBA prospects, what makes them elite is their chemistry.

Kentucky, in that regard, will be at a disadvantage, as it has been all year.

"You can't really neutralize it," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You just got to try to match it and you got to try to match it with energy and effort and getting 50-50 balls, making free throws and making put-back layups. That's been kind of the thing for us is we don't do those things. We're just starting to do them and I think tomorrow, that's going to be the difference in the game."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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