If Gary Harris has taught his Michigan State teammates anything, it’s that, when healthy, he’s one of the premier talents in college basketball.
At 6’4” and 210 pounds, the Spartans sophomore is considered an elite shooting guard due to his range, consistency (when it’s there) and ability to create his own shot. Since joining the team in 2012-13, he has fit comfortably into the fold as one of coach Tom Izzo’s star pupils.
He was never just a freshman or a player with potential a season ago—he was a guy who was expected to contribute from the get-go, which he did with about 12 points per game. This season, he has ramped up his bucket-filling efforts, leading the Spartans with an average of 17.6 points per game.
Despite a dipping field-goal percentage from .456 to .402 and a slumping touch from beyond the arc—.411 to .276, Harris remains Michigan State’s most noticeable, game-changing pacesetter. While obviously important, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are also certainly capable of tilting the balances in favor of Michigan State.
The senior pair serve as the glue that binds the team. Payne is the horsepower and Appling is the engine, but Harris is the oil. If Michigan State wants to avoid an early exit from the highway to Jerry’s World—site of the 2014 Final Four, Harris must regain his health.
Just as important, Izzo must allow Harris to regain his health.
Erring on the side of caution due to a right ankle that is like paper mache, Harris sat out during Tuesday’s 78-48 thrashing of North Florida. Last Saturday, he did not play in a 67-63 nail-biter over Oakland, a game in which he was sorely missed by Michigan State.
In reality, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for Izzo to rest Harris for the rest of this year. Other than making the trek to Austin to face Texas on Dec. 21, there isn’t a whole lot standing between Michigan State and a happy new year.
After the ‘Horns, Michigan State has New Orleans on Dec. 28, then it’s off to Happy Valley on New Year’s Eve for a meeting with Penn State.
Or is it? Izzo tried getting the game moved to Southern California. That way, his players can see the Spartans football team play Stanford in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Can’t blame a guy for trying, right?
Izzo obviously wants a happy-go-lucky holiday season. He’d get that by by giving Harris an extended breather to cap 2013. Then he can watch the Rose Bowl in peace.
Big Ten Won't Be Kind
In a conference known for its black eyes, scraped elbows and bloody noses, Michigan State can’t afford to have anything less than a fully healthy No. 1 scorer. Someone will have to put the ball in the basket while Payne and Appling are getting pulverized in the paint.
Harris is that someone—and he proved it this last season with a quick start during conference play. The Spartans posted an 8-2 record through the first half of the Big Ten schedule, but ran into problems as the season progressed, finishing 6-4, including the Big Ten's postseason tourney.
As a freshman, Harris cut his teeth with 12 points during a 76-63 loss to Minnesota, only to follow up with 22 during an 84-61 victory over Purdue. He scored at least 14 points during 11 Big Ten brawls, and if ready to go, he’ll top that mark this season.
Giving Harris ample time to recover is the key. Izzo can’t rush him back. Although dreadfully inconsistent, Michigan State is 9-1 for a few reasons—with Harris and good luck being two of them.
But Izzo has enough to survive the treacherous road ahead. After all, it’s only Texas, New Orleans and Penn State.
What’s the worst that could happen? Three losses without Harris, that’s what. If that were to be the case, Harris’ presence would double in value come January. The Spartans would have to make up for a conference loss—and find a way to redeem themselves after flubs against Texas and New Orleans.
Beyond that, Michigan State has No. 3-ranked Ohio State, Indiana (twice) and Michigan to start—not an advantageous launch by any means.
A hot-handed Harris coming on strong in 2014 would be ideal. A couple of 20-point games would quickly get things back to normal in East Lansing.
Can't Risk March
This goes without saying, but an early return could spell doom for Harris, who could end up missing the rest of the season if he torques his right ankle past its limits.
That wouldn’t be good. It wouldn’t kill Michigan State’s shot at winning it all, but it wouldn’t make doing so any easier.
Tournament-ready is a must. Without Harris’ 23 points against Memphis last March, the Spartans probably wouldn’t have advanced to the Sweet 16.
Harris scored just six during the Spartans' loss to the Blue Devils in last season's Sweet 16 showdown, but imagine had he not played at all. This year’s team doesn’t have the same size and power to compensate for a lack of scoring.
He could have entered the 2013 NBA draft and been a pick in the middle of the first round. This year, Harris is projected as a lottery pick, meaning he’s of high interest to teams looking for a franchise cornerstone.
A defensive specialist who can rebound, Harris would instantly add balance to an Association lineup. He doesn’t have the sheer size to immediately impose his will, but he can space the floor and get hot from long range. There’s an NBA team or two that can use his services.
But none of that will matter if Harris further damages his tender ankle. There’s a lot riding on that group of bones near the top of his shoe, so it’s probably best that he takes it easy until further notice.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81