EAST LANSING, Mich. — There is an adjustment period not only for freshmen, but also for the men who coach them. They must learn which buttons to push — when to kick them in the behind and when to pat them there.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo received some good advice on that before Saturday’s game in a text message from Sean Bledsoe, who was freshman guard Gary Harris’ AAU coach in Indianapolis.
Izzo relayed that message: “He’s got to be pushed more.”
And so Izzo, who does not need much encouragement in becoming forceful, decided to challenge Harris before the 73-61 win over Loyola University Chicago.
Harris got the message. Though it took him one half to truly light up the scoreboard. He helped the Spartans erase a two-point halftime deficit by scoring 14 of his season-high 20 points after intermission and hit three consecutive three-pointers in rapid-fire succession over a span of 86 seconds.
“He did get on me more,” Harris said with a smile. “He said I had to come out and move at the beginning.”
Harris, who said he also felt “free” by taking off the shoulder brace he’d been wearing since spraining it nearly three weeks ago against Boise State, finally did shake loose with good perimeter movement. He was able to capitalize on getting kick-outs initiated by center Derrick Nix, whose passes were prompted by Ramblers double teams.
“It’s very important,” Harris said of Nix’s passing. “He got only one assist, but he created a lot of movement. I’m just out there doing whatever I have to to win. Our bigs also did a good job of screening and getting me shots.”
Izzo added: “If Nix was a hockey guy, he’d have a lot of assists. But he made the pass that led to the pass that led to the basket, so he only had one assist. He made some big second assists that helped a lot.”
With leading scorer Keith Appling in foul trouble along with his point guard backup, Travis Trice, the bulk of the guard scoring load fell to Harris, and the McDonald’s All-American and Indiana Mr. Basketball is comfortable with that.
He scored 18 against Kansas and 19 on Texas Southern in his second and third games before the painful injury that caused him to miss two games.
Harris scored 12, 11 and 13 in the three games since returning. But there wasn’t a bust-out game until Saturday.
“I don’t know if he realizes it yet because he is an unselfish kid,” Izzo said. “He took the brace off today — which I’m not sure if I like. I might be fist-fighting the doctor tonight. But I think it is more mental than it is physical.”
Harris said he bounced the idea off Spartans trainer Quinton Sawyer before the game and decided to remove the brace.
“I just feel more free without the brace,” Harris said. “I just have to be careful so it won’t fall out again. I will wear it in practice. I just feel more free without it.”
If Harris’ shoulder were to “fall out again,” the Spartans would be half the team they are with him. Having Appling (14.6 points) and Harris drilling shots from the perimeter is essential to a team without a potent inside scoring threat against top competition.
Harris showed up three hours before tip-off to drain long-distance shots without the brace.
“I wanted to see shots go down on the main floor so I am ready to play,” Harris said. “We have to make shots if they are doubling in the post.”
Harris averaged 25.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 3.1 assists as a senior at Hamilton Southeastern in Fishers, Ind.
“He has a chance to be a great player,” Izzo said, “and tonight I thought he started to get his feet ready. People are starting to get a feel for one another.”
Which brings us back to Bledsoe’s suggestion that Izzo push Harris harder. Bledsoe coached Harris on the D3 Dorians Pride and was Spartans assistant coach Mike Garland’s assistant when Garland was the head coach at Cleveland State.
Harris, asked if Bledsoe or Izzo was tougher on him, made the wise and only decision by stating it was Izzo. The student is learning, just like the coach.
Spartans tailback Le’Veon Bell, who rushed 350 times for 1,648 yards, at halftime was presented the Elite Running Back Trophy from the College Football Performance Awards in Charlotte, N.C. Fans chanted “One MORE year!” and Bell said it became quite “emotional.” He is considering whether to enter the NFL draft after the Dec. 29 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl game with Texas Christian.