With the one-game suspension of Manny Harris on Saturday, Michigan head coach John Beilein essentially waved the white flag on Michigan’s season.
Harris, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.2 points per game, was suspended for Michigan’s game against Purdue as a result of “unsportsmanlike conduct during practice” on Friday.
“Manny has made great strides both on and off the court over the last three years,” said Beilein in a release issued Saturday morning. “Unfortunately, he used poor judgment on Friday. It is best for Manny’s future if he stays home and sits out this Purdue game.”
Details on the act of unsportsmanlike conduct have not been released so we have to trust the coach’s judgment without criticizing his decision.
Regardless of whether the act merited a one-game suspension or not, Beilein decided that suspending Harris and sacrificing a game would pay off in the long run.
Of course, Beilein would never say that. He, as probably every other coach in America, would say he expected the team to beat Purdue even without Harris. But that’s like expecting the Colts to beat the Jets without Peyton Manning.
Don’t be mistaken by the 10-point margin of victory. It wasn’t that close. Purdue built a 27-point lead midway through the second half before Boilermakers coach Matt Painter started emptying his bench and Purdue’s defensive intensity dropped off.
DeShawn Sims filled Harris’ void early on but unfortunately, no one else did. Michigan didn’t get a second scorer until Zach Novak hit a three with 7:38 remaining in the first half.
By that time, Michigan was all but out of the game.
The loss drops Michigan to 10-9 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten and a matchup with rival Michigan State looming.
At this point, anything short of running the table or winning the conference tournament assures Michigan of a postseason date in the National Invitational Tournament at best.
So, in such a critical game, was Beilein’s decision to suspend Harris the right one?
It depends on what happened, and we may never know, but one thing is for certain: Beilein is a coach who stands on his convictions as much as any other coach. Win or lose, he does things the right way by caring as much about the growth and development of young men than solely wins and losses.
Consider some recent examples from other college coaches for comparison.
In Florida’s football game against Georgia on Oct. 31, linebacker Brandon Spikes, the leader of the team’s defense, viciously dug his fingers through the facemask of Georgia running back Washaun Ealey.
The attempted eye gouge was caught on camera and was a clear act of unsportsmanlike conduct, to say the least. It was an attempt to injure another player that could have significantly impacted Ealey’s life beyond football.
Florida head coach Urban Meyer responded by handing down a half-game suspension of Florida’s next game against Vanderbilt.
Half of a game against one of the worst opponents on the schedule for attempting to maim another player in an act completely outside of the normal course of the game.
Spikes later responded to the backlash from the fans and media by suspending himself for the rest of that game.
Meyer apparently thought standing Spikes on the sidelines for the first 30 minutes of a pretty much meaningless game was justice for blatantly trying to injure another player.
In other words, Meyer cared more about winning a game than teaching a 20-year-old kid a lesson.
At Michigan State, running back Glenn Winston spent four months in jail during the offseason for putting a hockey player in the hospital with severe head injuries.
This wasn’t a black eye. This was a fractured skull and a subdural hematoma, or bleeding of the brain.
According to reports, the hockey player, A.J. Sturges, wasn’t even involved in the fight. He was just blindsided by Winston. As a result, he missed the rest of the hockey season, and memory loss caused him to drop classes.
Michigan State football coach Mark Dantonio immediately reinstated Winston to the football team when fall practice resumed, and Winston began the season as the starting running back before injuring his knee.
Did he learn his lesson? Apparently jail time wasn’t enough.
Winston was involved in another off-the-field incident last November, when he and some teammates stormed into a dorm and assaulted a group of students at a potluck dinner. Only then was Winston dismissed from the team.
Was Harris’ act of unsportsmanlike conduct on Friday as bad as either of those two scenarios? It’s probably safe to say that he didn’t put someone in the hospital with a severe head injury, and it most likely wasn’t as severe as attempting to gouge out another player’s eyes.
Yet Beilein made the tough decision to suspend his best player for a must-win game. He sent a message that no player is bigger than the team, and if a player’s actions undermine the coach or disrespect his teammates, there's going to be punishment, regardless of whether it was the star player or the last man off the bench.
If that means losing a game because of it then so be it because Harris and the rest of the team will learn from it. Or at least Beilein hopes.
“We will meet with Manny and the team again when we return to determine if he has learned enough from this suspension to rejoin the team for Tuesday’s game,” Beilein said. “I am confident that this learning experience will be valuable in the future to both Manny and our basketball program.”
Now the question is whether Harris will respond as a better teammate and role model, or whether he will harbor resentment towards Beilein for sitting him out of an important game and possibly hurting his chances for Big Ten Player of the Year.
We’ll find out on Tuesday when Michigan hopes to hand seventh-ranked Michigan State its first Big Ten loss of the season.