By Andrew Kahn
Gary Harris is Michigan State’s leading scorer, but he has plenty of help. Adreian Payne, Keith Appling, and Branden Dawson average in double figures as well. But injuries have kept the quartet from playing together for chunks of the season. Dawson has been out a month; Appling missed three games earlier this month; Payne missed six games before that. More of the offensive burden fell on the sophomore Harris. He shot 3-for-20 in a two-point loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 9. “He took some bad shots,” coach Tom Izzo said after the game. “He doesn’t do that often. Sometimes we had lineups on the floor where he felt pressure to score. I felt pressure to get him shots.”
Whether it was pressure, or a plain old shooting slump, that performance was the second of four-straight games in which Harris shot a combined 19-for-63 and just 6-for-27 from deep. Appling and Payne have both played major minutes in Michigan State’s last two games, and Harris has come alive, hitting 10-of-22 from deep and scoring a combined 46 points. The Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year last season is averaging 17.9 points per game (second in the conference), 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and two steals for the 22-6 Spartans.
Last year, it was Harris who dealt with an injury. He hurt his left shoulder in the fourth game of the season and although he only missed two games, he never felt good. His offseason priority was to get healthy, which he did. He also watched a lot of film. “The game has slowed down and come easier this year,” he said, specifically mentioning his faster defensive rotations and better vision off of ball screens. “My mind isn’t racing as much as when I was a freshman.”
Appling, a senior, said Harris is probably the best guard he’s ever played with. “He can shoot with a hand in his face and if you leave him open he’s not going to miss.” What makes Harris especially valuable is his work on both ends of the floor. “He defends—you can tell that’s important to him,” said Illinois coach John Groce. “On offense, he makes big shots and difficult shots. He’s one of the better players in our league.”
Harris wants the ball in his hands at the end of games. The key for him is realizing he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire load, regardless of how many Spartans are out of the lineup. As the NCAA Tournament looms, Harris will have to find a balance between staying aggressive and trusting his teammates if Izzo’s streak of getting every four-year Spartan to the Final Four is to continue. The NBA draft prognosticators expect the 6’4”, 210-pound Harris to be a lottery pick this summer, meaning it may also be his last chance to get there.
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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