Gary Harris Feels Good and You Should Too About Michigan State’s Title HopesPosted by Chris Johnson on July 5th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The national championship trophy will return to the Bluegrass State next April. That is the national sentiment, however prematurely conceived, about the 2013-14 Division I men’s college basketball season. The reasons for this are easy to divine: Kentucky is bringing in not just their typical boatload of McDonald’s All-Americans and future pros, but the best recruiting class of all time, according to anyone who tracks these things historically. Louisville’s claim is arguably just as convincing. The Cardinals return every significant piece from last season’s championship roster save center Gorgui Dieng and welcome in a junior college point guard in Chris Jones, who, while not nearly as touted as top-ranked Wildcats’ signee Andrew Harrison, should play big backcourt minutes in his first season of major college basketball. Both of these teams are expected to make deep March runs; anything short of a Final Four will be deemed a failure.
There are a few other teams lurking in the championship hunt, only with much less preseason buzz. The most underhyped of all, and dumbfoundingly so, is Michigan State. Ah, right, the Spartans, you know these guys: Tom Izzo, six Final Four appearances since 1999, a defense and rebound-oriented identity that almost never fails in tight games. And to think, after year upon year of reproving themselves on the biggest national stage, Michigan State might enter this season as one of the most underrated teams in the country. Now is the time to start rating them accurately, because not only do the Spartans have all the discrete parts and experience and talent to break up Kentucky and Louisville’s early preseason championship stranglehold, they have a healthy star point guard ready to make a huge sophomore leap. From NBCSports’ Rob Dauster:
“I’m just the type of person that’s going to play through regardless,” said Harris, who had offers from Notre Dame, Kentucky, Iowa, Indiana and Purdue to play wide receiver coming out of high school. “I sat out the first two games, but after that I couldn’t sit out anymore. I was going to play even if the shoulder fell off. So it feels good to finally get back to 100% healthy and get back to how I used to be.”
Word to any Big Ten team (or any league, honestly) not named Michigan State: yikes. That’s the Big Ten freshman of the year talking about how his first year of college basketball – which many NBA draft evaluaters saw as proof enough of a first-round selection in June’s draft – was played at less than full strength. The first few months of Harris’ offseason were spent deliberating a crucial decision – either have surgery on his ailing shoulder, or spend the better part of his late spring/early summer rehabbing it back into relatively painless operation. Harris chose the latter, and as Dauster’s observations while watching MSU’s point man at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy attest, Harris already looks better than he did last season. “One of the things that stood out to me was that Harris appeared to be much more explosive than I remembered him being during the season,” Dauster writes. In his less-explosive, injury-addled body last season, Harris evolved into one of the nation’s best point guards, posting a 114.7 offensive rating, a 55.5 effective field goal percentage, and a 58.5 true field goal percentage while turning it over on just 15.2 percent of possessions. Harris was good. The players around him – hyper-athletic forward Adreian Payne, bowling ball center Derrick Nix, occasionally-self destructive combo guard Keith Appling, dime-dropping facilitator Denzel Valentine and the rest – furthered his development and maturation. Falling in the Sweet Sixteen was a letdown by Izzo’s standards, but when you run into an unconsciously white-hot Seth Curry (who hit went 6-of-9 from three for 29 points) and hit just three of your own 12 three point attempts, you tip your cap and go home to fight another day. Not even timelessly proficient rebounding, a savvy Tournament coach and lockdown defense can save you then.
Unless the Spartans run into another insane downtown shooting performance in the early rounds of next year’s NCAA Tournament, here’s an early prediction: Michigan State is Final Four-bound. Harris is a big part of that, but so is the rest of the lineup Michigan State brings back, and the respective individual improvements some of those players have undergone this offseason. Branden Dawson struggled through his first season after Adrian Peterson-ing his torn ACL back into playing shape. Payne added new perimeter elements to his game. And however you appraise Appling’s net contributions to MSU, he’s talented and experienced and skilled enough to offer quality backcourt minutes alongside Harris. Izzo, for his part, is keen to express his optimism about the upcoming season. If Izzo believes it, count me in.
In the early summer preseason whisperings, Michigan State has stealthily eluded the early national championship. There are few more frequent predictive college hoops gaffes than doubting one of Izzo’s teams, particularly when he can’t even hide his own excitement. Don’t make that mistake. Don’t doubt this group.