Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Harris gets Beilein's message, leads Wolverines to must-have victories


Much was made of the effort by Michigan's complementary players after the Wolverines upset No. 15 UConn Sunday, giving the team its first "quality win" of the season, really, and inciting a ferocious court-rushing by 13,000-plus starving-for-something-to-celebrate blue and gold-wearing fans.

And rightly so. Because yes, the Wolverines wouldn't have won the 68-63 barnburner without the three 3-pointers from bench player Anthony Wright or the four points, four boards, two assists, two steals and a block registered by Zack Gibson against UConn's massive, twice-as-strong-as-Michigan's front line.

So good work, bench. The Wolverines will need such contributions the rest of the season if they're going to somehow, someway turn this disappointment into anything closely resembling the preseason expectations surrounding the squad that won an NCAA Tournament game a year ago and returned almost everybody.

But let's be honest. Wright could have the game of his life and Gibson could outmuscle 7-footers for 11 rebounds a night, but it wouldn't matter if Manny Harris played the way he did during the first half of Michigan's game against Indiana the other night. Playing at home, in an absolute must-win, the Wolverines' leading scorer looked listless, bored, unconcerned while shooting 0-for-5 and failing to contribute in any tangible manner.

So coach John Beilein did what sparked the Wolverines less than a year ago during a crushing -- at the time -- loss to Iowa. He benched his star with no intention of immediately reinserting him into the lineup even in what was a tight game. Harris needed to get the message that the way he was performing was unacceptable for a player of his stature, of his talent, of his experience.

Message received.

After observing his teammates while getting cold on the bench, Harris finally was called upon by his coach and delivered a dazzling display of Manny being Manny -- the good kind. He entered the game with Michigan ahead by six and soothed the tense Crisler Arena crowd by scoring 17 of his team's next 23 points to turn the Big 10 defensive battle into a blowout. He finished the contest with 21 points.

Of course, that was against Indiana -- a team that has won games based on heart, not talent. After losing their best player for the season before conference play began, the Hoosiers would be excused for packing it in and settling for three or four home wins.

So, no, a similar 11-minute effort wouldn't cut it for Harris, and the Wolverines, against the Huskies Sunday. Which is why although I doubt Beilein was looking ahead with his benching of Harris, it was a smart, portending move. Harris got the message at the right time and didn't need to be sat down Sunday.

Instead, he played a team-high 38 minutes. And Michigan needed him for all 2,280 seconds he was on the court. He scored 18 points, including a clutch 8-for-10 performance from the free-throw line, and grabbed eight huge rebounds against bigger UConn players, including five on the offensive end which helped Michigan score an astonishing 20 second-chance points.

Most importantly, Harris was strong with the ball and patient. Whenever he looks as if he's considering taking a contested 3-point shot, I cringe because, and Harris must know this, he's simply not a good long-range shooter. He often fades away when shooting 3s, and the results aren't pretty. But when he takes his time and sets up the offense, he's at his best -- and that was the case Sunday.

Harris attempted just two 3s -- and missed them both -- but got to the hole for a handful of big-time layups and runners, including the biggest one of the game which extended the Wolverines' tenuous lead to five with just over a minute remaining.

The biggest shot of the game was Zach Novak's 3-pointer that broke a 58-58 tie, but before that Harris had scored four of six Michigan points with a mid-range jumper -- more his cup of tea -- and a pair of hard-earned free throws.

So Beilein and company can only hope that the team's star junior -- and candidate for Big Ten player of the year -- got the message and is now off and running. Because the schedule turns brutal from here, with games at Wisconsin and Purdue followed by a home date with Michigan State, and the Wolverines can't afford many more losses if they want to sneak back into the Big Dance.

Many players will need to contribute along the way for such a thing to happen, but their efforts won't matter if Manny isn't consistently being Manny -- the good kind.


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