Harris holds Big Ten key

Tim Klobuchar

Gophers coach Clem Haskins says senior Eric Harris is playing as well as any guard in the country right now.
With names like Mike Bibby, Miles Simon, Mateen Cleaves, etc., floating around, Haskins might have a hard time backing up that lofty praise.
But if Haskins wanted to qualify his kudos further — such as saying that Harris is the best guard in the country who plays the most minutes on his team and scores the most points while rarely being higher than the third option — well, few would argue with Haskins.
“I can’t say enough about the way Eric Harris has played lately,” Haskins said. “He’s taken care of the ball, he’s played great defense and he’s picked up his scoring.”
Haskins has said repeatedly this year that if Harris hadn’t injured his right shoulder in the Sweet 16 against Clemson, Minnesota would have won the national championship last season. The expectations are considerably lower this season, but Harris still might be the key to whatever success the Gophers have in the Big Ten tournament, which starts Thursday when Minnesota plays Northwestern.
With the dearth of talent on the Gophers’ bench this year, Harris has become Mr. Everything. He’s played 100 minutes more than the player with the next-highest total, he has a better than 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, he continues to hound rival ball-handlers to distraction (57 steals, tied with Lewis for the team lead) and he’s scored 20 points or more in three straight games.
Those first three stats are indicative of qualities that observers have known about Harris for years: durability, good decision-making and strong work ethic. The last, however, looks out of place compared to what Harris has done in the past.
Though he averaged 11 points per game last season, he was rarely called on to provide anything more than complementary points. And even that was an improvement from Harris’ first two years, when one of his jump shots would often produce winces of pain from Williams Arena fans. Now, it’s not rare to see Harris break down a defender and drive to the basket, or pull up from three-point range, where he’s shooting a team-best 40 percent.
“I’m still learning,” Harris said. “You can never know everything about basketball. I don’t consider myself a scorer. I’m just working harder, and learning when to shoot. My main job on offense is still to get the ball to our go-to guys, Sam and Quincy.”
On several occasions this season, however, the go-to guys have been gone, either literally or figuratively. Jacobson missed three games with a sprained back early in the Big Ten season, and the extra attention he gets from the defense has contributed to some poor shooting nights. Lewis has also been spotty since spraining his left thumb against Penn State on Jan. 10.
“That has a lot to do with it,” Harris said of his increased scoring. “When Sam or Quincy is struggling, if I see an opportunity to penetrate or shoot a jumper, I’ll take it. A lot of my shots are coming off double-teams on Sam or Quincy.”
Along with Haskins, Jacobson has witnessed the development of Harris the closest and longest. Both came to Minnesota in fall 1994. While Jacobson was always expected to turn into the player he is now, Harris’ emergence, especially on offense, has been a little bit of a surprise.
“He’s progressed a lot,” Jacobson said. “When he came here he didn’t have great speed or quickness, or a great shot. He could dribble and make plays. Now, he’s really making plays for himself, and hitting the open jumper. That’s the biggest improvement I’ve seen. He’s always been a great defensive player, but he’s even increased that.”
Haskins said he likes to watch the two seniors play to a standoff during one-on-one sessions at practice, marveling at how far Harris has come.
“His first two years it was like, Oh my god, pass it, don’t shoot it,'” Haskins said. “Now we say, We’ve got to run some more screens for Eric Harris.’ That’s the beauty and joy of watching young people grow.”
Note: Jacobson was named second-team All-Big Ten by media representatives and conference coaches Tuesday. Harris was named honorable mention on both teams, and Quincy Lewis was honorable mention on the coaches’ team. Michigan State guard Mateen Cleaves was named Player of the Year by coaches and media.