This week, we are profiling five players currently under the national radar who could become breakout stars of the NCAA tournament. Other profiles include:
Last March, Cinderella came to the ball in the form of Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles made history by becoming the first 15 seed to make the Sweet Sixteen. After the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, Sherwood Brown, Chase Fieler, and Brett Comer were household names.
This year’s Cinderella may feel a little different, though. The Georgia State Panthers are one of the more highly rated mid-majors, ranked 63rd in the country according Ken Pomeroy and 73rd according to Jeff Sagarin. They have the makings of a formidable small school that could pull an upset or two, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Panthers will do it. First they have to navigate the Sun Belt and win their conference tournament this weekend.
If they are able to do that and subsequently win an NCAA tournament game, it will certainly comes as a surprise to some casual fans who may not know much about Panthers. But they might start feeling déjà vu when they see Georgia State’s number 55 running around scoring and distributing.
That’s because Georgia State’s roster isn’t full of kids who have never played on the big stage before. Just last season, number 55 for the Panthers was the starting point guard for one of the country’s most storied programs, playing under a coach known for running a point guard factory.
Of course, Ryan Harrow didn’t have the typical one-and-done year of a John Calipari-coached point guard. He didn’t earn the love of NBA scouts like John Wall, the first pick of the 2010 NBA draft. He didn't put up gaudy numbers like Eric Bledsoe, who averaged 17.3 points during his one year in Kentucky. And he didn’t enjoy postseason success like Marquis Teague, who won a national championship.
Far from it.
After a promising freshman season at North Carolina State and sitting out a transfer season under Calipari (and going against Teague everyday in practice), Harrow showed little progression, averaging 9.9 points and 2.8 assists in 2012-13.
It was easy to blame Harrow for Kentucky’s struggles last season. In the very first game against Maryland, he failed to score, playing only 10 minutes while former walk-on Jarrod Polson stole the show. He gained steam during the middle of the season, but Harrow stumbled again at the end. He hit just 2-of-15 field goal attempts as Kentucky bowed out in the first round of the SEC tournament, and then played only nine minutes in the Wildcats’ first round NIT loss to Robert Morris.
It was easy to say Harrow ran when he saw the Harrison twins coming to Lexington to take his spot, too. Shortly after the season ended, Harrow announced he would be transferring again, this time to Georgia State.
But that wasn’t the case. The bar for that Kentucky team was set ridiculously high; people unreasonably expected a repeat performance of the previous year’s team, which was considerably more talented, balanced, and experienced. And Harrow didn’t leave Kentucky because he was running from anybody, he was running to somebody: his father.
The Marietta, Ga., native earned a family hardship waiver to play immediately at Georgia State so he could be near his dad, Mark, who suffered a stroke in 2012. Mark’s condition weighed on Harrow throughout his season at Kentucky, which undoubtedly affected his play.
Along with fellow transfer Curtis Washington, Harrow has joined a Georgia State team that went 15-16 the year before and helped lead it to a regular season conference championship in its first year in the Sun Belt. The weight of constantly worrying about his family off his shoulders, he has transformed himself as a Panther.
Georgia State’s success stems from its offense, which is one of the most efficient in the nation. The Panthers rank 40th in field goal percentage at 47.1 percent, and protect the ball better than any team in the country, turning it over on only 12.3 percent of possessions.
Harrow has been a driving force behind the Panthers’ effectiveness. He’s still a mediocre shooter, and could afford to take fewer threes for a guy who only hits 28.6 percent of them. But Harrow is able to both get to the basket and effectively find his teammates in a way few other players can. In fact, with averages of 17.2 points, 4.4 assists, and 1.7 turnovers, he’s one of just six players in the country who scores at least 15 points per game and boasts an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5 or higher.
Harrow is able to both get to the basket and effectively find his teammates in a way few other players can.
The 1.7 turnovers per game are nearly identical to the numbers Harrow posted at Kentucky and NC State. The difference has been that Harrow has maintained a low rate of turnovers while increasing his minutes and usage. His 10 percent turnover rate is significantly better than the 16.6 percent he had in Lexington, or the 18 percent he posted in Raleigh.
The key for Harrow on the court has been playing off the ball. At Kentucky, he was expected to run Calipari’s dribble-drive motion offense. With the Panthers, Harrow doesn’t have to worry as much about ball-handling duties. Devonta White, whose 2.58 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks just ahead of Harrow’s 2.55, does a fine job of that.
Harrow is still a focal part of the team; he uses the most possessions on the team at 29.5 percent. But by not playing the point, he can fit his play into the flow of the game rather than having to initiate the offense every time he comes down the court.
Harrow is comfortable now. He’s closer to home and happier off the court. He’s playing a more suitable position and happier on the court. And he doesn’t have to deal with the attention and scrutiny that came with playing at Kentucky. If everything goes well, though, in a few weeks he’ll play himself right back into the national spotlight.