When he was introduced as UMKC’s coach, Kareem Richardson didn’t know about Martez Harrison.
But Richardson new this: Players with Kansas City backgrounds would essential in building the Kangaroos program.
So, when Richardson completed the season by cutting down nets as an assistant coach for Louisville’s 2013 national championship team, word spread about Harrison and his season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
Harrison spent a season there to grow his game instead of signing with Southern Illinois or Western Illinois out of University Academy.
“I started to hear about him, and that he was still available,” Richardson said. “We reached out and started to build a relationship.”
One that paid off in a major way for UMKC last year. Harrison became Richardson’s first starting point guard — the first freshman to start an opener for the Kangaroos since 2008 — and turned in a terrific season, averaging a team-best 17.2 points and becoming the program’s first player to win a conference freshman of the year honor.
Harrison was the eighth-leading scorer among freshmen nationally.
The season at Brewster, where current Kansas guard Devonte Graham and former Jayhawks All-American Thomas Robinson played, was critical to Harrison’s development.
“It helped me grow as a player and helped prepare me for college,” Harrison said. “I learned about toughness.”
Not just on the floor, helping run an offense that included players who signed with Syracuse, North Carolina State and West Virginia, but also being away from home.
“It wasn’t like I could drive home,” Harrison said. “If something wasn’t going my way I had to stay there and grind it out. I had to keep pushing forward.”
What appealed about UMKC was Richardson and his sales pitch. Come to UMKC, Richardson said, and help build a program of regional players.
“He kept telling me that he wanted to grow and needed more local guys here,” Harrison said. “I totally agreed. It’s our hometown. It’s only right that you have hometown kids on the team.”
Richardson was well on his way to localizing the ’Roos. Eight players on the 15-man roster played at a Kansas City-area high school. Two have transferred after leaving the area. Reese Holliday, who played at Sumner, has one year remaining after transferring from Toledo. Broderick Newbill, who played at Hogan Prep, transferred from Fresno State.
For Harrison and the program, this season is about taking the next step. In its first year in the Western Athletic Conference, UMKC finished 7-9 and tied for fifth. The overall record was 10-20. This team will have to learn to play together: Only four players — Harrison, Frank Williams Jr., Isaac Kreuer and Mason Wedel — suited up for the Kangaroos last year.
“That’s 11 guys who haven’t played a minute for us,” Richardson said. “We’re still learning our chemistry, learning how to play our system and learning to play together.”
But it’s a big advantage when one of those returning players is a point guard as good as Harrison. Richardson wants to see his improvement in his leadership and defense, and if UMKC found a couple more reliable scoring sources, that would relieve some offensive pressure from Harrison.
“But it’s comforting to know we’ve got a go-to guy,” Richardson said.