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Moving home has helped Ryan Harrow improve on, and off, the court

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Georgia State head coach Ron Hunter only has two rules, two requirements, for the kids that play on his basketball teams to stay on the court.

Assuming they get their grades, don’t cause a ruckus on campus and generally carry themselves as decent human beings on a day-to-day basis off the court, all he asks is that: A) they work hard, and B) they have fun. It’s not a crazy philosophy. The guys on his roster are on his roster for a reason, and as long as they’re playing hard for themselves and their teammates, and as long as they’re truly enjoying the opportunity to play basketball at this level, Hunter will be happy.

“At the end of the day, you’re going to make mistakes,” Hunter told NBCSports.com this week, “but you have to play hard for me and you have to enjoy it.”

And while it took a little effort to teach a guy as talented as Ryan Harrow what ‘playing hard’ actually meant, the real issue that Hunter initially had with his former McDonald’s All-American point guard was getting him to have fun, to enjoy the fact that he was still a basketball player by trade.

“I don’t think I saw him smile until right before the Vanderbilt game [on November 12th],” Hunter said of Harrow, who arrived on campus in June. “He had a huge smile on his face. We used to bring him in and say, ‘man, it’s just basketball’. Then all of a sudden, in December, even when we lost a couple games in a row, he’s walking in, patting me on the back, ‘What’s up, Coach?’. I mean he’s a completely different kid than he was when he walked in. It’s almost like two different people.”

Harrow’s story has been well-publicized at this point.

He began his collegiate career at N.C. State, leaving after one season to enroll at Kentucky, where he redshirted during the team’s run to the national title and took over the point guard role for Marquis Teague when he left for the NBA. What happened in Lexington that season was, for lack of a better word, a disaster. The Wildcats personnel just didn’t fit, the team struggled to gain any momentum in the SEC despite the conference being down and Harrow took the brunt of the criticism for the team’s trip to the NIT.

What wasn’t discussed publicly, however, was that Harrow’s father, Mark, had suffered a stroke back in Atlanta during the summer of 2012. He had trouble getting up by himself or dressing himself, making the simplicities of living day-to-day strenuous tasks. “When I saw his dad on the first day,” Hunter said, “he came into practice and he looked awful. I was like, ‘I don’t think he can make it through the season.'”

That weighed on Ryan, and when coupled when the stress of struggling inside the bubble that is Lexington and Big Blue Nation, and the embarrassment of a McDonald’s All-American returning to his hometown to play for a team in the Sun Belt Conference, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that it was hard for Harrow to enjoy basketball.

Being at home helped him, but more importantly, it has also helped Ryan’s father. Mark is now able to watch his son play ball on a daily basis. “Coach lets him in [to practice] … sometimes,” Ryan said, chuckling. “He’ll come by and just watch. He’s definitely at all the games, even the away games he tries to make.” And it’s more than just basketball. Ryan lives on campus, but his father’s house is just a 15 minute drive away. A quick phone call, and the two can be breaking bread for lunch, watching a movie or settling in on the couch for a night of hoops.

“It makes me a lot happier. I don’t have to worry as much. I’m right here,” Ryan said. “I know seeing me play basketball makes him happy, so I’m glad that I’m doing well and he’s able to see all this.”

That’s the key, here.

Ryan is doing really well. He’s playing his best basketball since he was a high school senior, and Georgia State is having more success than anyone in the program thought they could entering the season. Harrow is second on the team in scoring, averaging 17.3 points and 4.6 assists, while the Panthers shook off a 1-6 start against Division I opponents to run out to win their first 10 Sun Belt games. They currently sit at 13-1 in league play, and a win at Texas-Arlington on Thursday night would clinch at least a share of league’s regular season title.

And here’s the irony: the turning point of the season came when Hunter made the decision to play Ryan out of position. After an overtime loss to Southern Miss dropped the Panthers to 1-6 against Division I teams, Hunter turned the reins over to Devonta White. Previously, White and Harrow had been splitting time at the point guard spot. Hunter moved Harrow off the ball, a role that the redshirt junior hadn’t played since his high school days.

It worked. Georgia State is winning, in large part due to the fact that Harrow has accepted his role on this team. He’s embraced his teammates, trusting them more than he did at the beginning of the season. The example Hunter used came in Saturday’s thrilling, last-second win over Louisiana-Lafayette. Back in a loss to FIU in November, on the final possession of a one-point game, Hunter drew up a play to get the ball in Harrow’s hands.

“Three guys ran at him, we ran the play and he shot it and missed and we were devastated,” Hunter said. “On Saturday, [we ran the] same exact play and he makes the pass to Manny Atkins for a three.” And to Hunter, that change encapsulates the changes Ryan has made, the strides he’s taken to become a better player.

And, frankly, it’s really not hard to make the connection here.

The son comes home to help the ailing father. The father gets better being closer to the son. Stress rolls off the son’s shoulders seeing the father get better, allowing him to thrive. Seeing his son succeed brings life back to the father. We see it from a distant. For Hunter, whose son, R.J., is Georgia State’s leading scorer, it’s been special to see it happen up close.

“When I saw his dad on Saturday, his dad looked terrific,” Hunter said. “Walking, smiling, he looks healthy now. It’s just amazing what happened with the two of them being back home together. For dad to be able to see Ryan play and practice, and more importantly for a father to see his kid happy, I think it’s been tremendous [for Ryan].”

“The weight of the world is off him now.”

“Basketball’s becoming a lot more fun,” Harrow said. “I just saw what I went through and how I was previously, and I just try to keep myself in good spirits and always try to laugh because I don’t want to go back to that place that I was at before I got here.”

“It’s just my mindset. I’m not really worried about the spotlight or the individual achievements. I’m happy that we’re winning, obviously, but just the way I think now is different. I don’t let too much get to me after all that I’ve been through.”

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (Jon Lopez/Nike)
(Jon Lopez/Nike)
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Arizona landed their first commitment in the Class of 2017 on Friday night as point guard Alex Barcello pledged to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.

Barcello is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Tempe who plays his high school ball for Corona del Sol. He committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to the Tucson campus.

Barcello is a borderline top 100 prospect who sits at No. 123 in the Rivals top 150. He’s known for his ability to shoot, and he’s more of a combo-guard — i.e. shoot-first — than a point guard at times, but he’s a nice pickup and projects as a solid four-year player for the Wildcats.

Virginia, Indiana, Stanford and Butler were the other four schools on Barcello’s list.

Duke lands first commitment in 2017 class

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Alex O’Connell knew exactly where he wanted to play his college ball, which is why, just two days after picking up an offer from Coach K and the Blue Devils, he became Duke’s first recruit in the Class of 2017.

O’Connell announced the on twitter on Friday afternoon:

O’Connell is a four-star prospect from Georgia that had a terrific summer, going from being a borderline top 75 prospect to a player that caught the interest of Duke, who, along with Kentucky, sit atop the college recruiting hierarchy. He’s an explosively athletic and lanky 6-foot-6 wing with three-point range on his jumper. He needs to add some weight and some strength — he’s listed as a crisp 175 pounds — but he has the tools, and the swagger, to develop into a very effective player in the ACC.

Is he a one-and-done prospect?

Probably not. In fact, since 2010, Duke has landed just two players that were rated lower than O’Connell: Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White. If you know who both of them are, you’re probably either Jon Scheyer or lying.

But what O’Connell is is a kid who put in the work to get better this past year and who has the skill set, the physical tools and work ethic to continue to improve. He may not be on Grayson Allen’s trajectory, but O’Connell has the makings of being an impact player for the Blue Devils for three or four years.

Alex O'Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Alex O’Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Shaka Smart lands contract extension at Texas

Texas head coach Shaka Smart instructs his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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Shaka Smart has already landed himself a contract extension at Texas.

The school, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has given Shaka a one-year extension — through the 2022-23 season — and bumped his salary up to a cool $3 million, a raise of $100,000 annually.

Smart’s Longhorns went 20-13 last season and lost on a half court buzzer beater from Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen. It will be tough for Smart to match the success that he had last season, specifically because he lost senior point guard Isaiah Taylor to the professional ranks.

That said, the former VCU head man has been reeling in quite a bit of talent from the state of Texas — namely, Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen — and is not all that far from turning the Longhorns back into a relevant member of the Big 12 title race.

Arizona and Texas headline Lone Star Shootout

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Wichita State Shockers during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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Another marquee, early season event is on the books for the college basketball season as four potential tournament teams will be squaring off at the Toyota Center in Houston on Dec. 17th.

The highlight of the double-header, which has been dubbed the Lone Star Shootout, will probably end up being Arizona vs. Texas A&M. The Wildcats are a Pac-12 contender and a borderline top 10 team as we enter the season, and while the Aggies will have work to do replacing the seniors they lost off of last season’s roster, they’re a borderline top 25 team.

The other matchup will feature a pair of former Southwest Conference rivals facing off in Texas and Arkansas. Texas will be talented but young while Arkansas may actually have the best player on the floor in Moses Kingsley. What will make this matchup interesting is that both Mike Anderson and Shaka Smart are known for being coaches that prefer a full court pressing system.

“We are extremely excited about the opportunity to play in front of our fans at the Toyota Center in Houston,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said in a statement. “It is one of the most important areas in this state as it relates to our recruiting and fan base.

Five-star 2017 guard Lonnie Walker cuts list to five schools

Men's U18 trials head shots and team photo on 6.15.16
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Five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker is coming off of a very good summer as he trimmed his list to five schools on Thursday night.

The 6-foot-4 native of Reading, Pennsylvania is still considering Arizona, Kentucky, Miami, Syracuse and Villanova, he announced on Twitter.

Regarded as the No. 26 overall prospect in the Class of 2017, Walker played with Team Final in the Nike EYBL this spring and summer as he averaged 16.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Walker shot 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 72 percent from the free-throw line.

An efficient scorer who is learning to drive with both hands, Walker is very talented and the type of guard who might also be able to handle a bit as well.