Harris, Michigan State’s freshman guard from Fishers, Ind., scored 18 points Tuesday night in a 67-64 win over No. 7 Kansas. He was the perfect complement to junior point guard Keith Appling, who scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half and drove for the game’s final points on a double-pump scoop shot with 13 seconds remaining.
“On guard” was the best way to describe the win in Atlanta. The No. 21 Spartans improved to 1-1 after losing the opener to Connecticut in Germany.
“Gary Harris made some big plays,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said on his WJR-AM postgame show, “and App made some big plays.”
TV analyst Jay Bilas noticed that Harris, a McDonald’s All-America and Indiana Mr. Basketball at Hamilton Southeastern High, is wasting no time being assertive against top college competition.
“You can see why Tom Izzo and his staff are so excited about Harris,” Bilas said. “He’s going to be a great player. … Harris is truly outstanding.”
Harris displayed his feel for the game midway through the second half. He passed the ball inside from the left side of the court and slipped through the defense to get wide open in the right corner. When he caught the pass, Harris instantly drained a 3-pointer.
Scoring is in his blood.
Harris averaged 25.4 points as a senior and poured in a school-record 1,540 points. His mother, Joy, still ranks seventh in Purdue women’s basketball scoring with 1,747 points. Mother and son can fill the basket, but also stress strong two-way play.
“My mom played and was known as a defensive stopper,” Harris said recently. “She said you can’t always control your offense, but you can control your defense.”
Harris also set his high school’s steals record with 232 and averaged 4.0 per game as a senior. He’s a hard-nosed player who also stood out as a football wide receiver. Harris made 47 catches for 973 yards (20.7 yards per catch) and 13 touchdowns as a senior.
“I focused on defense as a kid because I couldn’t shoot,” Harris said.
When told that such a comment does not seem possible, Harris smiled and said, “I still don’t feel like I can shoot. I have to work on my shooting.”
That’s a scary thought for defenders.
His father, Gary, also attended Purdue. The younger Harris visited there as well as Indiana and Kentucky. But it was a feeling he got in East Lansing, Mich., that caused him to sign with the Spartans.
“It came down to me being most comfortable here,” Harris said. “It was the family atmosphere I felt. Everybody says they have a family atmosphere, but I really feel it here. It’s where I want to be for the next four years.”
Whether he stays four years remains to be seen. The NBA likely will become an attractive alternative before Harris becomes a senior. But perhaps it was something about not caring to be a “one-and-done” freshman headed to the NBA that turned him off on defending national champion Kentucky. The Wildcats won it all and then had freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist leave as the top-two picks in the NBA Draft.
Harris and Appling likely will join them there some day, but for now they are the best thing going for the Spartans.
Appling spent the offseason taking 500 3-point shots each day with the goal of increasing his accuracy there from 25 percent to about 40 percent. He made all three of his 3-point attempts Tuesday night and is 5-for-8 for 63-percent accuracy after two games.
“We did some ball screen stuff and let App go one-on-one,” Izzo said on WJR. “Gary got a little tired. We played him so many (35) minutes.”
Appling played 38 of 40 minutes.
Swing man Branden Dawson also had his second consecutive quality performance with 12 points, four rebounds and two assists.
Centers Derrick Nix (eight points, eight rebounds) and Adreian Payne (four points, eight rebounds and four blocks) also were solid and kept 7-foot Kansas center Jeff Withey (eight points, seven rebounds) neutralized.
“I’m not sure we played great,” Izzo said in his postgame TV interview. “It was an ugly game. But it shows you this team has potential.”