Updated MAR 21, 2015 7:35p ET
With the influx of additional NBA-caliber talent, the emergence of Willie Cauley-Stein as a college basketball superstar and the play of mistake-averse water bug Tyler Ulis, it didn’t take very long for the 2014 March Madness exploits of Kentucky’s Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, to fade into the background of an undefeated season. Both players logged starter’s minutes for coach John Calipari’s ultra-deep roster, but it’s easy to blend in at 36-0.
The 6-foot-6 guards proved on Saturday that they are still going to factor into the Wildcats‘ long-term plans over the next few weeks. As Kentucky’s top-ranked defense slowly suffocated 8-seed Cincinnati, winning 64-51 to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the past five seasons, the Harrisons came through in some big moments on the offensive end.
Ignore, for a moment (if possible), the final 13-point scoring margin.
The Bearcats did an admirable job of muddying up the Round of 32 matchup, matching Kentucky’s physicality and pushing right back through the first 25-plus minutes. Cincinnati is a traditional tourney grinder, annually embracing the inevitable wear and tear. The underdog crashed the boards (22 offensive rebounds) and limited quality scoring opportunities, and with 12 minutes to go it was still a five-point game.
Enter Aaron Harrison.
This should be a familiar March name by now.
Last season’s Mr. Clutch, Aaron has yet to shy away from the big moments in his collegiate career. It was his 3-pointer with 39 seconds remaining that proved to be the dagger against rival Louisville in the 2014 Sweet 16. He hit the game-winner with four seconds to go against Michigan in the Elite Eight. And he saved his best for last — a game-winning 3-pointer with six seconds remaining to discard Wisconsin and advance to the ’14 championship game against UConn. Owning a relatively average 53.4 career true-shooting percentage, the sophomore is not shy when it matters.
Holding onto that five-point lead in Saturday’s slugfest, Aaron’s 3-pointer with 12 minutes remaining triggered a 10-3 run that helped put the Bearcats away. It was a pivotal point for the Wildcats, who were never truly threatened but still needed an offensive spark. Aaron finished with a game-high 13 points, including three of his team’s four made 3-pointers.
Kentucky ranked 145th nationally in 3-point shooting (34.9 percent) entering this game, and while it rarely needs long-range proficiency to dispose of opponents, having a second option along with freshman sharpshooter Devin Booker certainly doesn’t hurt.
Playing the odds, there’s likely to be a moment when Kentucky really needs a big basket in this tournament — maybe not a game-winner or buzzer-beater, but at least provide some key second-half points — and having its No. 1 culprit on such matters get going after slow opener against Hampton was an important development against Cincy.
And while Aaron spread the floor with a few key shots, his brother didn’t shy away from entering the interior fray in the second half. After a near-absent first half, Andrew capitalized when the Bearcats’ flaws and fatigue began to show. Over a one-minute span, Andrew twice went into attack mode, finishing at the rim on both occasions and drawing a foul on the latter. This is not always the version we see from the Wildcats point guard, but it offered a glimpse at just how dangerous Kentucky can be when he’s making his presence known.
(Keep in mind that while Aaron stole headlines, Andrew scored 34 combined points against No. 1 seed Wichita State and 4-seed Louisville this season.)
In all, the Harrisons scored 12 of Kentucky’s 33 second-half points.
These contributions may sound insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Maybe they are. Regardless of offensive output, Kentucky’s historically great defense — an imposing skyline that blocked nine shots and held Cincinnati to 31 percent shooting — could carry it to a title. Dominance in the paint with Cauley-Stein, top-five NBA draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns and other towers could be the meal ticket. The Wildcats are going to be favored regardless and they can deliver in a variety of ways.
Everything held constant, though, when the Harrisons are clicking Kentucky goes from unbeaten to, arguably, unbeatable in this tournament.