LEXINGTON, Ky. — Enes Kanter didn't suit up for a game this season for the University of Kentucky basketball team, didn't grab a rebound or score a point.
But as the Wildcats prepare to meet Connecticut on Saturday at the Final Four, Kanter's teammates say the Turkish center — ruled permanently ineligible to play college basketball — deserves some of the credit.
“It's helped us big-time, because he's one of the best big men in the country,” point guard Brandon Knight said Tuesday.
That's been important to the Cats even if Kanter's played only in practice.
The 6-foot-11, 272-pound Kanter has played a key part in the development of senior Josh Harrellson, who came into this season averaging 2.7 points and two rebounds per game in his UK career but is averaging 14.8 points and nine rebounds in this NCAA Tournament. He has gone toe-to-toe with high-profile centers Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina.
“Even if I'm not even going against (Kanter), just watching him do something (in practice), I'm trying to match what he does,” Harrellson said. “Just doing that makes me more confident. Being able to stop him in practice and playing against him every day — playing against the best of the best — just makes me go into every game knowing I'm not going to play somebody as good as Enes.”
Kentucky hoped to have Kanter manning the middle this season, but the NCAA ruled him ineligible for accepting benefits in excess of his expenses from a pro club in his native Turkey.
Knight said that Kanter, now an undergraduate assistant coach, has had an impact on UK's team defense with his versatile offensive game. Players have become better at trapping the post and rotating.
But the biggest difference has been in Harrellson, who is playing the best basketball of his career.
At the beginning of the season, Harrellson said he'd have given up his senior season in order for Kanter to be eligible. On Tuesday, Harrellson said that even if it's “a little selfish,” he's happy to have had a major impact on a Final Four run, something he might not have done had Kanter been available.