At this point in the season Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris is one of the players who has to be considered not only for Big Ten Player of the Year honors but a spot on All-America teams as well. Averaging 18.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game (before Sunday), Harris is one of the key cogs in the attack for a Spartan squad that has battled the injury bug all season long.
To expect Michigan State to win in spite of a 3-for-20 afternoon from Harris with all members of their rotation available would be a stretch. To do so with Keith Appling (wrist) and Branden Dawson (hand) out of the lineup and Adreian Payne (foot) playing just his second game in the last month? Near impossible. Yet there were the Spartans, hanging around at Wisconsin with Payne and Travis Trice making key plays down the stretch. Ultimately Michigan State would fall, as Traevon Jackson hit a jumper from the left wing with 2.1 seconds remaining to give Wisconsin the 60-58 victory.
The issue for Harris, first and foremost, was the defense applied by Wisconsin guard Josh Gasser. One of the Big Ten’s best defenders Gasser made life difficult for Harris for much of the afternoon, and when the sophomore was able to get shots up few of those looks went unchallenged. That resulted in some forced attempts, hardly the recipe for a player looking to get untracked offensively, and when Harris did shake free of Gasser he found another Badger (or more) waiting.
Harris did manage to get two dunks early in the second half, but those plays didn’t provide the spark needed to get him going offensively. Add to this the fact that Harris didn’t attempt a single free throw, and the end result is a six-point afternoon for one of the nation’s best two-guards. Harris did account for seven rebounds and three steals, as he didn’t allow his shot to affect the level of effort given in other areas of the game.
However as noted above the Spartans remained in contact with Wisconsin throughout thanks to the play of Payne, who scored 24 points and tied the game at 58 with a three-pointer with 12.2 seconds remaining. Payne was assertive offensively, and defensively he spent time on both Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. After shaking off some rust in a comfortable win over Penn State on Thursday night, Payne had the look of the player he was before injuring his foot.
And with an eye towards March and the need for players other than your stars to step forward on occasion, Travis Trice’s 13 points should not be ignored. Trice hit a key three with 1:45 remaining to pull Michigan State to within three, and his pass to Payne resulted in the game-tying basket. And after scoring a total of five points on 1-for-11 shooting in Michigan State’s last two games, maybe this outing will be the confidence boost Trice needs moving forward.
And just as important as the scoring is the fact that Trice went a second consecutive game without committing a turnover. When healthy (knock on wood, Spartan fans) Michigan State won’t need Trice to be a double-digit scorer but they do need him to be productive when on the floor. That happened against Wisconsin, and Michigan State nearly left Madison with the win as a result.
Gary Harris had the worst shooting day of his young career on Sunday, with Michigan State also missing two starters, and Tom Izzo’s squad nearly overcame it. The Spartans will be fine, because it’s a safe bet that Harris doesn’t shoot that poorly again.