Ryan Harrow’s fresh start gives him a shot at redemption

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Seven times in the past six seasons, John Calipari has recruited and coached a point guard that played for him for one year, either at Memphis or Kentucky, before moving on.

That group includes six first round picks, some of whom are among the NBA’s most talented ballhandlers: Derrick Rose. Tyreke Evans. John Wall. Eric Bledsoe. Brandon Knight. Marquis Teague.

And then there’s Ryan Harrow.

Unlike his one-and-done predecessors, Harrow’s tenure under Coach Cal didn’t end up with a guaranteed contract and NBA millions. It ended back in his hometown of Atlanta, as the former top 40 recruit transferred to Georgia State back in March after one ignominious season in Lexington.

Instead of playing in the SEC for a team expecting to compete for a national title, Harrow will be helping the Panthers navigate the jump from the CAA to the Sun Belt Conference this year.

Instead of starting at the most important position in Coach Cal’s dribble-drive motion offense for what is arguably the nation’s premier program, Harrow, who has now parted ways with two top 25 programs, finds himself trying to learn a third system in four years; trying to mesh with and lead a talented team built largely on fellow high-major cast-offs.

This wasn’t the path Harrow saw himself headed down.

Three summers ago, when he packed his things and moved to Raleigh, Harrow never pictured himself returning home to play for the second best college team in a city located in the heart of football country.

But that’s not where his story has to end.

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Last season was a nightmare for Kentucky, with yet another top recruiting class yielding nothing but a first round NIT loss to Robert Morris. If that wasn’t bad enough, in-state rival Louisville went on to win a national title. As bad as things got for Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel, who missed the final third of the season after tearing his ACL, it was Harrow that became the whipping boy, the kid that was forced to shoulder much of the blame for Kentucky’s struggles.

It started on the season’s opening night.

Harrow managed to play all of ten minutes in front of a packed house and a national television audience as the Wildcats beat Maryland in the inaugural college basketball game at the Barclays Center. His backup, former walk-on Jarrod Polson, was the star. The official party line was that Harrow was sick, that he had the flu, but when he missed the next four games, including Kentucky’s trip to Atlanta for the Champions Classic, it was clear there was more going on.

Kentucky referred to it as a personal issue throughout the year, but wouldn’t get into specifics. Harrow’s father suffered a stroke prior to the start of the season, and that played a role in his decision to leave the team for a week last November. During phone interviews with NBCSports.com last week, neither Harrow nor new head coach Ron Hunter would discuss what, exactly, caused Harrow to miss time last season.

“There’s a lot of things that aren’t reported involved in his personal life, things that most 30 or 40 year old men couldn’t handle,” Hunter said. “I don’t know if any kid in the country could have gone through those things.”

What was affecting Harrow off-the-court is unclear.

What was clear, however, was that Kentucky needed Harrow on the court. They needed him to be a commanding presence at the point, a coach on the floor that could get all of that inexperienced talent organized and into an offense without turning the ball over. Kentucky needed strength. They needed toughness, both physical and mental. They needed a vocal, commanding leader. The fans knew it. The media harped on that point, especially when Noel went down with a torn ACL.

And Harrow couldn’t provide that on a consistent basis.

source: Getty Images“I had a long stretch where I was doing really well,” Harrow told NBCSports.com, “and then towards the end of the season, it was just hit or miss with me. If I just played like myself and did well, we usually will always come out on top.”

Ability wasn’t the issue. Harrow had 16 points, eight boards and six assists in an overtime win against Missouri and 13 points in a come-from-behind win over Florida in the final regular season game, stats made all the more impressive by the fact that both games were the most important to date for last year’s Wildcats. Those were two bright spots in a season that ended in utter disappointment, however.

Rock bottom came during the postseason. Harrow collapsed. After going 2-15 in in a 16 point loss to lowly Vanderbilt in the first round of the SEC tournament, Harrow was in tears, trying to hide his face from the cameras during his postgame media session as he blamed himself for the loss.

“It just all came out right there. I’m not even a big believer in crying. I really don’t like that [everyone saw me],” he said. “But that was real. What happened to me, […] that was everything that was inside of me that came out.”

Harrow followed that game up by getting benched after playing just nine minutes as Kentucky got dropped by Robert Morris in the NIT’s opening round.

Less than two weeks later, Harrow announced that he would be transferring.

“I really tried not to think about it until the season was all the way over,” Harrow said. “It was a hard decision because I knew how good Kentucky was going to be this season.”

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When Harrow announced his decision to transfer out of Kentucky, the assumption was that he was either forced out by Coach Cal or that he headed for the hills when he saw the Harrison twins coming for his minutes. It was an easy connection to make for the armchair college basketball cynic. Coach Cal has run players off before, when he first arrived at Kentucky*. It’s a practice that is quite common at that level of the sport. And no one wants to spend a season buried on the bench after getting accustomed to starting.

(*According to a UK spokesperson, “All returning scholarship players from the 2008-09 Kentucky team had an option to return under coach Calipari.”)

But Harrow bristles at the notion that he left Lexington for any reason other than being closer to his father.

“We got a saying in my family, ‘Family First’,” Harrow said. “We’ve all got that tattooed on us. My dad is the only one in Atlanta, and with the struggles that he’s going through, I just thought that it would be best for me to come back and help him with whatever he needed.”

According to Harrow, when he made the decision to go to N.C. State, his family moved out of Atlanta to North Carolina to be closer to him. Everyone except his father, that is, which created a problem when pops suffered his stroke. There was no one there to help him. “They thought that his left side would be a little bit more back to normal than it is,” Harrow said, “but it’s not progressing like they thought.”

So Harrow headed home.

“He’s always really happy when I’m around,” he said. “And I get to see him a lot more now that I’m only ten minutes away.”

“I just think that he’s finally settled in his life, he’s back settled with his family and people that care about him,” Hunter added.

Whether Harrow left Kentucky because he saw the writing on the wall or because he wanted to be closer to his dad is largely irrelevant at this point. The NCAA believed his story, which means that Harrow will be eligible this season to run the point for a talented Georgia State.

The Panthers return their top three scorers from last season, including 6-foot-5 shooting guard R.J. Hunter, the head coach’s son that averaged more than 17 points as a freshman. Throw in seniors Devonta White and Manny Adkins, who started his career at Virginia Tech, and Coach Hunter has more guards than he’ll know what to do with next season. If he can find a way to get consistent interior production from USC transfer Curtis Washington or keep Denny Burguillos eligible, the Panthers are going to be a team that will cause more than a few headaches for opposing coaches.

For the third time in his collegiate career, a coach will be handing the reins to Harrow.

“We’re going to put the ball in Ryan’s hands and we’re going to let him make decisions,” Hunter said. “He’s not a selfish basketball player. He makes the right play.”

For Harrow, this is his shot at redemption. This is his chance to prove that he’s more than the guy that flamed out at Kentucky. This is his opportunity to become something other than the answer to a trivia question, to prove to every Kentucky fan and every media member that questioned his ability to handle the pressure that came with playing in front of Big Blue Nation.

“They want to see if I’ve actually got the heart to lead this team,” Harrow said.

He’ll have his chance to shine in the spotlight early. Georgia State plays Vanderbilt on November 12th. Six days later, they head to Tuscaloosa for the first two rounds of the Preseason NIT. Knock off McNeese State and Alabama, and Harrow and company will be headed to Madison Square Garden for a game that will be played on ESPN.

For now, Harrow is saying all of the right things. He’s not concerned with points or assists, “it’s all about wins and losses.” He doesn’t want postseason accolades or national recognition. When asked what the perfect season would be, individually, he said, “win the Sun Belt, get into the NCAA tournament and make a run” while referencing Butler and Wichita State. He believes that a point guard, that the leader that he wants to be, is defined by nothing more than what the team accomplishes.

He knows what he needs to do.

“Keep my head straight, not getting upset with myself or upset with anybody else,” Harrow said. “Just going out there and playing basketball the way that I know that I can play basketball.”

And if you believe Coach Hunter, he can play pretty well.

“I tell people this all the time: if Ryan Harrow had played point guard on that team that Marquis Teague was on, he’s not here right now,” Hunter said.

“He’s playing in the NBA.”

Bubble Banter: Kansas State, Virginia Tech add crucial wins to help overcome poor schedules

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Monday night.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

KANSAS STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 37, NBC seed: Play-in): The Wildcats went and added two — potentially three — Quadrant 1 wins in their last three games, beating Oklahoma and TCU at home last week before picking off Baylor (currently 76th in the RPI, but I’d guess they’re top 75 to end the year) on Monday night. A home loss to Tulsa (RPI 112) is going to stick out, as will a non-conference SOS that ranks 344th. Those two things means that the Wildcats have a very small margin for error, but with the way they are playing, I think that they’ll do enough to get in with a seed that seems too low for them.

VIRGINIA TECH (RPI: , KenPom: 54, NBC seed: Out): The Hokies did quite a bit to change their NCAA tournament chances on Monday by knocking off North Carolina at home. It’s easily the best win on their résumé, and given that their only other Quadrant 1 win came on a neutral against a Washington team ranked 50th in the RPI, it is easily their most important win. A Nov. 16th loss to Saint Louis (RPI 147) looks really bad, but VT still has Miami twice, Duke twice, Virginia, Louisville and Clemson left on their schedule. Those are all potential top 20 wins. They’ll need them to overcome a non-conference schedule that ranked 319th.

TEXAS (RPI: 42, KenPom: 43, NBC seed: 9): The Longhorns did what they needed to do against Iowa State at home, picking up a win to help shake off the whooping they took at West Virginia on Saturday. Believe it or not, but Texas currently has four Quadrant 1 wins to their name without anything worse than a high Quadrant 2 loss — at Baylor, at Oklahoma State, Gonzaga on a neutral, Michigan at home.

LOSERS

MARYLAND (RPI: 47, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Next four out): The Terps picked up their worst loss of the season, falling at Indiana. In a year where Mark Turgeon’s club has already lost Justin Jackson and where it seems like they suffer a new injury just about every week, a tournament berth seems increasingly unlikely. Their next two games are at home against Michigan State and at Purdue. They might beed to win both.

NEBRASKA (RPI: 64, KenPom: 67, NBC seed: Out): The Cornhuskers missed out on a golden opportunity to add a marquee win to their résumé as they lost by five at Ohio State, a top 15 team in the RPI. The Cornhuskers currently do not have a Quadrant 1 win to their name — their best win comes at home against Michigan — and the only chance they’ll have to add one the rest of the regular season comes at Minnesota, who could very well drop off that level. There are only two teams left on Nebraska’s schedule that are in the top 100 of the RPI.

BAYLOR (RPI: 76, KenPom: 39, NBC seed: First four out): Baylor lost at home to Kansas State on Monday night. They’re now lost six of eight to start Big 12 play and their next two games are at Florida and at Oklahoma, both of which would be marquee wins the Bears currently lack.

VIDEO: Kenrich Williams posterizes West Virginia

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I am not sure what was more impressive tonight, Kenrich Williams going for 14 boards and six assists against No. 7 West Virginia, the fact that he played the point for them against that press … or this dunk:

It was the dunk.

Definitely.

Alex Robinson leads TCU past No. 7 West Virginia

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You’d be forgiven if you thought that TCU’s season was done and dusted when starting point guard Jaylen Fisher went down with a knee injury that will cost him the rest of the season.

Fisher was the team’s third-leading scorer at 12.3 points and ranked second in assists. He was shooting 43.9 percent from the floor. More importantly, he was backcourt defensive presence that doesn’t exist elsewhere on the TCU roster.

When the Horned Frogs lost Fisher, they were coming off of their second loss to Oklahoma in the span of two weeks and their fourth loss in the first five games of league play. With two games against both West Virginia and Texas Tech, and a trip to Allen Fieldhouse, left on their schedule, this had all the warning signs of a season in danger of sliding into oblivion.

On Monday night, in TCU’s third game without Fisher, Jame Dixon’s club put together their best performance of the season. They held No. 7 West Virginia to 33.3 percent shooting from the floor and led by as many as 20 points in an 82-73 win in Fort Worth, a win that puts an entirely knew feel on where this season can and will go.

The biggest reason for that may be Alex Robinson.

A 6-foot-1 hometown kid and a redshirt junior that transferred into the program from Texas A&M, Robinson has seemingly always been overlooked in this TCU program. Part of that is because he’s not a great scorer or shooter. Part of that is because he isn’t really a defender. And part of is, frankly, is because he never quite got his chance.

And now, with Fisher out, Robinson is not only getting his chance, but he is making the most of it.

TCU is 2-1 in their three games without Fisher, and Robinson has been the star, averaging 12.3 points, 4.7 boards and 10.7 assists. Against West Virginia, one of the nation’s most difficult defenses to deal with, Robinson finished with 17 points, nine assists and seven boards despite barely stepping foot off of the court. He got some help from Kenrich Williams, TCU’s best player, a 6-foot-7 forward that was a high school point guard and did the heavy-lifting when it came to breaking that press.

But that shouldn’t put a damper on how Robinson played on Monday.

And it shouldn’t take away from what he has been able to do with Fisher out.

Suddenly, TCU looks like a team that found themselves on the wrong side of lucky through the first seven games of Big 12 play. They lost five games during that stretch by an average of 3.3 points. Two of those losses came when the Horned Frogs missed game-winning shots at the buzzer.

They were and have been a top 25 team that found out the hard way how tough it is to win close games in this league.

And at this point it is probably fair to say that hasn’t changed despite having a new player running the point.

Monday’s Three Things to Know: TCU, Virginia Tech and Kansas State earn big wins

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1. VIRGINIA TECH EARNED ITS BIGGEST WIN OF THE SEASON

Virginia Tech has been considered by many to be a disappointment this season. The Hokies haven’t beaten anybody notable in the ACC and the non-conference schedule didn’t deliver any signature victories.

Which is why Virginia Tech’s win Monday night over No. 10 North Carolina is so critical.

The Hokies finally have a great win to hang their hat on for the committee. Where has this version of Virginia Tech been all season?

2. TCU ALSO EARNS A SIGNATURE WIN

Entering Monday night, TCU could have rolled over and called it quits on this season.

The Horned Frogs had dropped four of five games by a total of 15 points. Talented sophomore guard Jaylen Fisher was diagnosed with a season-ending injury for TCU.

But TCU stayed strong through some adversity as they pulled off a huge 82-73 Big 12 home win over No. 7 West Virginia. Leading for nearly the entire game, TCU did a great job of slowing down Mountaineer offense as West Virginia struggled to score in the half court.

3. KANSAS STATE PICKED UP THE NIGHT’S BIGGEST BUBBLE WIN

It’s time to start keeping track of the bubble.

With March Madness creeping closer, every night will feature games with big bubble implications. Besides for TCU and Virginia Tech beating top-1o teams, Kansas State beating Baylor for a Big 12 road win was the most important bubble win of the night.

The Wildcats have suddenly won four of their last five — including wins over Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor in their last three games. Not many people are talking about Kansas State in a loaded Big 12 but they’re playing as well as any team in the league right now.

A few more wins like this and the Wildcats could play their way into the Field of 68.

Bates-Diop scores 20 as No. 13 Buckeyes slip past Nebraska

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Keita Bates-Diop scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half and No. 13 Ohio State beat Nebraska 64-59 on Monday night, the fourth victory for the surging Buckeyes in the last eight days.

The back-and-forth game had seven lead changes in the second half. A pair of foul shots by Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. cut Ohio State’s lead to four with 2:19 remaining, but the Cornhuskers couldn’t pull any closer.

Jae’Sean Tate put the Buckeyes (18-4, 9-0 Big Ten) up by six with a layup with 1:02 left, and a pair of foul shots by Kaleb Wesson stretched it to eight. Palmer hit a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left, but Nebraska ran out of time.

Palmer had a career-high 34 points. Nebraska (14-8, 5-4) was fresh off a 20-point upset of then-No. 23 Michigan on Thursday.

Ohio State surpassed its win total for all of last season. Earlier in the day, it moved from No. 22 to No. 13 in the AP Top 25, its highest position since 2014.

BIG PICTURE

Nebraska: The surprising Cornhuskers knocked off a ranked team last week and are a better squad than last season with Palmer carrying the load, but couldn’t outlast the steady Buckeyes.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes may have been fatigued after a rugged traveling schedule and three straight games on the road. But they found a rhythm in the second half and picked up another critical Big Ten win over a good team.

NEXT UP

Nebraska: At Rutgers on Wednesday.

Ohio State: Hosts Penn State on Thursday.