Arkansas' Harris taking control after transfer
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP)
Now that the Little Rock native is back home and finally on the court for the Razorbacks, he might just prove to be the piece that helps coach Mike Anderson snap the school's five-year postseason drought.
The 6-foot-6 Harris came to Arkansas (3-0) after two seasons at Houston, where he averaged 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
After sitting out last year because of his transfer, the power forward has quickly made up for lost time this season - averaging a team-high 18.3 points per game in 21.3 minutes off the bench.
His play has earned high praise from Anderson, who simply refers to the junior as a ''man.'' He also caught the eye this week of SMU coach and Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who had no reservations about calling Harris the team's ''best scorer'' after he had 21 points in an 89-78 win over the Mustangs.
''He brings toughness to our program,'' Anderson said. ''He is a lot more mature. He is a guy you can put the ball in his hands he can make some plays for you.''
Harris' journey to becoming one of the most reliable options for Arkansas - which opens play at the Maui Invitational against Cal on Monday - has been anything but conventional.
The former football player didn't even start playing organized basketball until his freshman year in high school, with his only exposure to the sport before that coming during 3-on-3 tournaments and during pickup games in his neighborhood. Harris laughs now about his early days on the court at Little Rock Central, where he was known as an offense-only, defensive liability as a sophomore.
Still, despite his learning curve, Harris' talent was evident and he caught the eye of then-Arkansas coach John Pelphrey. Harris has little positive to say about the chain of events that led to him going to Houston.
Harris said Arkansas was his top choice, and that Pelphrey offered him a scholarship as a sophomore - an offer he accepted. However, he said Pelphrey didn't want him to go public with his commitment until after he earned the grades needed to be eligible.
Those grades weren't secured until the spring of Harris' senior year, he said, at which time the promised scholarship from Arkansas was no longer an option.
Pelphrey, now an assistant coach at Florida, declined to comment about Harris' recruitment.
For his part, Harris still holds a grudge about the recruiting process. However, he doesn't use it as motivation, now that he's where he wanted to be all along.
''This is home,'' Harris said. ''I was supposed to be here anyway. I was just listening to a lie for two full years.''
Harris petitioned the NCAA for a waiver last year to be immediately eligible to play at Arkansas, but it was denied. Instead, he spent the year practicing with the Razorbacks, who finished 19-13, and adding a dash of flair: During home games, he would wear bright bow ties and matching shoes or shoe laces, becoming an unmistakable presence on the Arkansas bench.
''He just kind of took that upon himself to stay focused, because some guys lose their focus sitting out a year,'' Arkansas senior Mardracus Wade said. ''They get bored, they get tired, but with him he always worked hard, was engaged in practice and that really helped him out a lot as you can tell.''
Point guard Kikko Haydar played against Harris each year in high school when his Fayetteville team played against Harris' Little Rock Central squad.
Haydar knew then how much talent Harris had, and he saw it firsthand on the collegiate level when Houston - led by Harris' 18 points - defeated Arkansas in Little Rock in 2011, Anderson's first season after replacing Pelphrey.
That game, as well as Harris' willingness to work last season during practice, has led the Razorbacks quickly accept their newcomer as a go-to option.
''He got a year to not only earn respect with us but learn the system, learn how coach wants him to play, and then he gets to start fresh,'' Haydar said. ''He definitely earned his respect from us from day one.''
Anderson has said repeatedly how much last year's team could have used a physical performer like Harris. That said, he's thankful to have Harris' leadership now - regardless of how long it took him to come home.
''Guys understand when a guy can play,'' Anderson said. ''They can sense that. They can see that. That's the realness of it. So it's easy to follow a guy like that.''
AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Fla., contributed to this report.