Gary Harris showing the strength of a healthy Spartans' squad

Tuesday February 4th, 2014

Gary Harris has battled injuries since arriving in East Lansing, but his value to the Spartans has never been in doubt.
Charlie Neibergall/AP

What a week! Not just one, but two Games of the Season, one in Syracuse, one in Stillwater, and both against the writhing, bright orange backdrops TV cameras seem to love. In one single night last Saturday four top-10 teams fell, including No. 1 Arizona, which also lost starting forward Brandon Ashley to a season-ending foot injury.

But as far as this Wooden Watch goes, the big question isn't who will win it -- Doug McDermott has it all but locked up -- it's who will be the runner-up? With fortunes rising and plummeting all over the basketball map, that race is wide open.

Spotlight on Gary Harris, Michigan State

For the past few months, when pulse-checking media or fans have asked Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, "Where's you team right now?" he has given the same response: "In the training room."

The plagues of injury and illness that have visited the Spartans this season have been sweeping and well-documented, and it has deprived Izzo of the chance to really enjoy coaching a tight-knit group he calls "more fun than most." But the extended absence of this or that player has given Izzo a chance to really appreciate what that guy gives his team.

One early season absence from the lineup Izzo felt acutely: sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris, who leads the team in points (18.4) and steals (2) and is fourth in rebounding (4.4).

"There aren't too many guys that you say, you have to play 35 minutes, score 18 points, and still lock down the best player on the other team," says Izzo. "But that's what Gary gives me. Sometimes when a player's out you miss him one way, but I happened to miss him both ways. He's as good defensively as he is offensively, and that's about as good a compliment as I can give anybody."

After sitting out three games in November and December to nurse the right ankle he first sprained during an open gym at the end of August, the 19-year-old Harris says he is feeling better than he has since he arrived in East Lansing from Fishers, Ind., a year and a half ago. (As a freshman he was limited for most of the season by a left shoulder injury.) "I still do rehab on the ankle every day, but I feel great right now," he says.

It shows: In four of his last five games, Harris has scored 20 or more points. Part of that is necessity: With 6-10 senior Adreian Payne (16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds) out with plantar fasciitis for the last seven games and junior forward Branden Dawson (10.2 points and 8.7 rebounds) out for the last three with a broken hand, Harris has picked up a lot of the scoring slack, though his task has been harder without Payne drawing defensive pressure.

"Without that post presence, teams can faceguard Gary," says Izzo. "With Payne, we had options, it was like inside-outside. It was smoother. Now we have to manufacture ways for Gary to get balls. We've even turned to posting him up some. But I think that shows his versatility."

Another display of Harris's versatility: In a 80-75 loss to Michigan on Jan. 25, Harris scored a career-high 27 points. But he was also so effective at throttling Wolverine star Nik Stauskas in the first half that Michigan coach John Beilein suggested at halftime that the best way to get Stauskas going was to keep Harris in the locker room. (Stauskas did eventually go off and ended up with 19 points.) "Gary did a hell of a job on a really good player, but he has done that," says Izzo. "He's guarded point guards, two guards, three men. I wish I could take credit for his defensive intelligence, but it was either his high school coach or his mom."

Harris says his mother, former Purdue star and Kodak All-America Joy Holmes Harris, always emphasized the importance of defensive stops, and he grasped their benefits early. While most of the kids around him focused on shooting, "I'd play defense and get a lot of easy layups," he says. His offense, which came later, is still a work in progress. "He could always take it to the hole and shoot threes, but now he has added a midrange game," says Izzo. "That just makes him harder to guard."

Izzo hopes to get Payne back for Thursday's game against Penn State, which will make Harris even harder to guard. While Harris finding his groove is good for this year's Spartans, there is a flip side, says Izzo. "Now I'll probably lose him because he's too good to be here, you know?"

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton

Just in case there was still a benighted soul or two out there who doubted his worthiness for this award, McDermott scored 39 points, including the 25-foot game-winner with 2.5 seconds on the clock, to beat St. Johns 63-60 in Omaha on Jan. 28. McDermott's seventh 30-point game (including his second game-winner) of the season was a smorgasbord of offensive ploys. His exploits included long bombs (he made five threes), right-handed fade-aways, lefty lay-ins and free throws. Red Storm coach Steve Lavin's strategy for stopping the Bluejays -- throttle everyone but McDermott -- was only bad in retrospect. At one point, McDermott had 30 points to St. John's 28. The Wooden apparent through 21 games: 25 points; 7.1 rebounds, 50 percent from the floor; 89.3 percent from the stripe, 43.9 percent from three.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke

After riding out a bit of a slump in early January, Parker has not only gotten his offensive mojo back, he has become a beast on the boards. After averaging 13.3 rebounds in the previous three games, he had nine boards to go along with the 15 points he scored before fouling out in Duke's 91-89 overtime loss at Syracuse on Saturday. (Game of the Season I.) Parker didn't always make great decisions against the zone, but he found a way through it, getting all six of his buckets in the paint. Parker through 22 games: 18.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 46 percent from the floor.

3. C.J. Fair, Syracuse

Playing all 45 minutes of that same Game of the Season I, Fair had a career-high 28 points, including nine buckets in the paint, to go with five rebounds, two blocks, one turnover and one foul. Coach Jim Boeheim declared the game the best ever played in the Carrier Dome and Fair's performance "phenomenal." Fair, he said, "broke out of that good, solid player into a great player. He was a great player tonight."

Alas, in a 61-55 win over Notre Dame two nights later, Fair was merely ordinary (he had a season-low six points to go with five rebounds and three steals). But he was also wise in ceding the spotlight to teammate Trevor Cooney, who matched a school-record with nine threes for a career-high 33 points.

While we're speaking of Fair's teammates, I have to mention freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, who has been sorely neglected in this space, even though some people consider him the best freshman in his star-studded class. After the Duke game, ESPN Stats offered up these cool nuggets: "Tyler Ennis had three assists and zero turnovers in the final 5 minutes of the second half and overtime against Duke. He had eight points on 1-1 FG and 6-6 FT during that span. For the season, Ennis now has 17 assists with zero turnovers while shooting 50 percent from the field after the five-minute mark of the second half."

Syracuse may lose eventually in the ACC, but it will be a tough team to beat in March. Fair through 22: 17.2 points 5.9 rebounds, 45 percent from the floor.

4. Gary Harris, Michigan State

As we've established, Harris does a lot for the Spartans, on both sides of the ball. But this was an odd week for him. In the undermanned Spartans' 71-69 OT win at No. 15 Iowa on Jan. 28, he had one of his quietest games of the season, scoring just nine points (and missing all four of his attempts from the three) to go along with six rebounds and four assists. Four days later in New York City, he scored 20 points, including four threes, against unranked Georgetown but the Spartans lost, 64-60. After the game, Harris said the team needed "to get tougher" and get back to its strength, rebounding. With Payne about to return, they no doubt will. Harris through 19: 18.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2 steals a game.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona

After struggling to hold off Utah at home to extend their winning streak to 20, the Wildcats seemed ripe for a stumble this week. Stanford would have been the scene of their downfall had Johnson not come through by helping to hold the Cardinal to 1-for-13 shooting in the last 9.5 minutes, hitting a go-ahead three-pointer with 51 seconds to go and adding two free throws with 5.8 seconds left to seal the 60-57 win.

At Cal two nights later, the wheels finally came off. After Brandon Ashley left the game two minutes in with what turned out to be a season-ending broken foot, Johnson struggled to score. He had eight rebounds but only four points (on 1--for-13 shooting, including 0-for-5 from the three) to go with five turnovers and four fouls. Worse, he got beat on the decisive play, when Golden Bear Justin Cobbs dribbled left and pulled up to bury the game-winner with 0.9 left.

It was a bad night, but it doesn't change the fact that Johnson is the best player on the second-best team in the country. Johnson through 22: 16.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 47% FG.

6. Xavier Thames, San Diego State

It's time to give fifth-ranked Aztecs' X-Factor (yes, that's one of his nicknames) a little Wooden Watch love. As I wrote in the magazine this week, Thames is not only the best defender on arguably the best defense in the country, he is also the go-to scorer on a team that doesn't have a lot of offensive weapons. In addition, he embodies the team's best-in-the-country foul differential of 11.8. He gets to the line 6.7 times a game and makes 5.5 on average while committing just two fouls a game. (All that and, with a little practice, he could sit down at a hotel lobby piano and knock out some Beethoven.) Against Colorado State on Saturday Thames had 24 points, including a season-high 12 free throws, and seven rebounds. It was his second straight game without a turnover. Thames through 20: 18 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.8 steals a game.

7. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

In an 80-43 rout of the Houston team that had beaten the Huskies in Texas last month, Napier had 19 points, seven rebounds and three assists, his 19th game double digit scoring. In the Huskies' last four games, he has averaged 25.5 points on 50 percent shooting and made an average of eight trips to the line, where he has shot 90 percent. In the course of that four-game span, incidentally, Connecticut has gone from "others receiving votes" to No. 22 in the AP poll. Bazz through 21 games: 17.9 points, 6 rebounds, 5.7 assists. 87.6 percent from the stripe.

8. Russ Smith, Louisville

This week in review: In the Cardinals' 69-66 loss to Cincinnati, Smith had 16 points, including one classic Russdiculous three that had no business going in, and four assists. In a win over UCF, he had 27 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. (According to another cool nugget from ESPN Stats, Smith assists on 33 percent of his teammate's field goals when he is on the floor, second best in the AAC behind Napier.)

For all the good things Smith does, his team remains a puzzle, ranked 14th but still without a signature win. The Cardinals' next chance is a Feb. 22 rematch at Cincinnati, now ranked No. 7. Smith through 22: 18.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.9 steals.

9. Julius Randle, Kentucky

It wasn't a great week for Kentucky's top scorer and rebounder. At snow-bound LSU on Tuesday he had his worst game of the season, mustering just six points, five rebounds, and three steals as the Wildcats lost, 87-82. Even in a bounce-back win at Missouri, when he had 18 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block, Randle got posterized by the Tigers' 6-5 guard, Jabari Brown. (Can he help it if he has short arms?) Randle through 21: 16.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 53 percent shooting.

10. Tie: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State and DeAndre Kane, Iowa State

Going into the Cowboys' critical game against Iowa State on Monday (hereafter to be known as Game of the Season II), there had been a lot of buzz about how poorly Smart has been shooting the ball (he was 3-for-28 on three-point attempts in his previous four games, three of them losses), how he had been trying to do too much to rescue a team that was losing players (on Sunday freshman Stevie Clark was kicked off the team for good) and losing its grip, and how tiresome and annoying his flopping had become -- all valid talking points.

In what turned out to be a wildly entertaining three-OT drama in Stillwater, Smart had 20 points, including 1-of-5 from three, to go with seven rebounds and three assists and many, many flops. There are still a lot of questions around Smart, but one cold reality for the Cowboys. Once ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, they are now in seventh place in the Big 12. Smart through 22: 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.4 steals, 28.2 percent shooting from the three.

After he followed the Cyclones' fourth loss in five games with a five-point performance in a win against Oklahoma on Saturday, Kane, their senior point guard, fell off our radar. (Which may not have been fair, since he averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in those losses.) But his performance against Oklahoma State, and specifically against Smart, who guarded him most of the night, got him back here. In getting to the rim at will and making 3-of-8 threes for 26 points, Kane led the Cyclones to their first win in Stillwater since 1988 and a three-way tie for fourth place in the Big 12. Kane through 21: 16.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6 assists, 50 percent field goal shooting.

In the Wings: Tyler Ennis, Syracuse; Keith Appling, Michigan State; Jahii Carson, Arizona State; Nik Stauskas, Michigan; Kyle Anderson, UCLA; Andrew Wiggins, Kansas; Joel Embiid, Kansas; Casey Prather, Florida; Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico; Lamar Patterson, Pitt; Chaz Williams, UMass; Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati; Jabari Brown, Missouri

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