Harrison twins’ improvement has been pivotal for No. 8 Kentucky

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When the calendar flipped to the month of March, the Kentucky Wildcats looked nothing like a team that just over a month later would be making final preparations for a game in the Final Four. The Wildcats would lose 72-67 at South Carolina on March 1, a game that fell in the middle of a regular season-ending stretch of three losses in four game. One of the issues late was the play of freshman guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, with both struggling with their shot and understanding of what head coach John Calipari expected of them within the system.

During those four games Aaron shot 11-for-43 (25.6%) from the field and Andrew wasn’t much better at 11-for-38 (28.9%). And at that point in the season there were also signs that the twins were allowing the poor shooting to impact other areas of their game, which given their positions as the leaders in the backcourt can affect the team as a whole.

Was that rough stretch for Kentucky entirely their doing? No. But it should come as no coincidence that with the Harrison twins playing better basketball, Kentucky has stepped forward as a team.

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In seven postseason games Aaron, who hit big shots in wins over No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan last week, has shot 46.3% from the field and 50% (22-for-44) from beyond the arc. He’s taken better shots for much of this seven-game run, with Kentucky’s lone defeat coming in the SEC title game, and having that kind of perimeter shooting helps with the spacing of Kentucky’s offense. Driving lanes become somewhat easier to navigate, and the big men have more room to operate inside when defenses are forced to remain honest.

As for Andrew, his improvement hasn’t been so much about shooting as it has been distributing the basketball. In Kentucky’s final four regular season games he averaged 3.8 assists per game. In postseason play that figure is up to 5.7 assists per contest, which is nearly two assists per game more than his average on the season (3.9). Have there been hiccups along the way? Yes, as noted by the 12 turnovers committed in wins over Kansas State and Wichita State. But he bounced back in Indianapolis, committing a total of six turnovers in Kentucky’s wins over Louisville (two) and Michigan (four).

So what’s the difference been? In Monday’s coaches teleconference Calipari discussed their improved body language, but he also blamed himself for the twins not fully understanding what their respective roles were.

“We had to define the roles better, and I did a poor job of that until late in the year, by the end of the year,” Calipari said. “I can’t believe it. I was angry when I realized what I had done. I coached all different kinds of point guards. We had to get Derrick Rose to shoot more. We had to get Tyreke [Evans] and Brandon Knight to shoot less.

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“We had fast point guards, point guards that weren’t as fast. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe that played the combo. It just bothered me as a coach. That’s my job. Their job is to play. My job is to help define their roles, to bring them together, to get them to understand. I’m happy it was done; I just wish I had done it earlier.”

That may not seem like much to some, with the general response likely being “they’re McDonald’s All-Americans and projected lottery picks, so they should be able to figure it out.” But that isn’t how the game works, especially at the level Kentucky and any other team that aspires to win a national title competes at on a daily basis. Kentucky has multiple weapons capable of putting points on the board, with James Young on the wing and Julius Randle being an incredibly difficult matchup inside due in part to his ability to attack off the dribble.

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But if this team was to turn things around and make good on the preseason prognostications that they’d win Kentucky’s ninth national title, better play was needed from the backcourt. That’s been the case over the last month, with the Harrisons’ improved understanding of their individual roles and how they fit into what the team was looking to accomplish being a key factor. And if that continues to be the case, two more wins are well within Kentucky’s reach.

Old Dominion lands former four-star center

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Elbert Robinson came out of high school in 2014 as a borderline top-50 recruit with offers from the likes of Florida, Kansas and Louisville before he ultimately chose to attend LSU.

The 7-foot-1 center, though, never even averaged 10 minutes a game in Baton Rouge and now will be finishing his career as a graduate transfer at Old Dominion, according to multiple reports.

“Old Dominion was perfect for him,” Lawrence Johns, Robinson’s grassroots coach, told the Virginian-Pilot. “I know for a fact that nobody in (Conference USA) is over 7 feet.

“I told him to go there and show people why he was the No. 1 center the year he came out.”

Robinson, who sat out last year for medical reasons, could step right into a major role with the Monarchs, who lost their starting frontcourt this offseason. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.4 minutes per game last year for the Tigers.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.