March 17, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Detroit players give U-M a new life

Manny Harris wasn't sure he would stay at Michigan when John Beilein became coach, but now Harris is glad he did. (Ankur Dholakia/The Detroit News)

ANN ARBOR -- Oh, there were doubts. Manny Harris had 'em, DeShawn Sims had 'em. Lots of people wondered how long it would take Michigan to be good again, or just not irrelevant anymore.

The Wolverines are back to interesting, back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years, mainly because John Beilein's system is working well ahead of schedule. Beilein has been successful so many years in so many places, he had a pretty good idea it would work here.

But that wasn't the immediate question two years ago for his two most important players. Harris, from Detroit Redford, had committed to previous coach Tommy Amaker and was hearing all sorts of odd things about Beilein's style, which emphasizes lots of 3-point shots. Harris admits he wavered on his commitment to Michigan, until he explored a bit more.

"The thing with coach Beilein is, he didn't lie to me," Harris said. "Coaches will come in and say, 'This is gonna be your team and I'm gonna give you the ball.' He just stayed real throughout the whole recruiting process."

This is not totally Harris' team, and he doesn't dominate the ball. But make no mistake, the Wolverines accelerated their development precisely when Harris and Sims accelerated theirs.

Harris leads Michigan in scoring (16.9) and Sims is second (15.7). Harris, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, is tied with Sims, a 6-8 junior, for the team lead in rebounding (6.9). In Michigan's big victories down the stretch over Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa, the Detroit Duo combined for 61 percent of the points.

Believing in Beilein

Two years ago, the program was wracked by apathy, and when Amaker was fired, Harris' uncertainty was understandable. But after Beilein's re-recruitment, Harris opted to stay, and there's no way the Wolverines would be here, preparing for a first-round game against Clemson Thursday, if he hadn't.

That's how moribund programs get revived, how a 10-22 team in Beilein's first season can become 20-13. It takes a little faith in the unknown to become known. Today, Beilein is more renowned, directing his fourth program -- Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia, Michigan -- to the NCAA Tournament. And Harris and Sims are becoming better known, leading the Wolverines to unfamiliar places.

Beilein, a history major, quotes Winston Churchill when describing his program's development -- it's not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Wherever it is, it's fascinating to watch.

"During the beginning, being 10-22, you kind of doubted some things," Harris said. "But even if you were unsure, he's a great coach and the system is perfect. I feel like we can do damage in the tournament."

Harris believes that now, but he says he believed it when Beilein benched him during an overtime loss at Iowa, and even believed it before the season. That's when the team changed the lock code on the dressing room door to 2210 (yes, the reversal of 10-22). Harris revealed that tidbit with a smile, then realized he'd given out privileged information, slapped his hand over his mouth and dashed off to tell Beilein his mistake.

It's an unlikely melding among Beilein, Harris and Sims because Beilein didn't originally recruit them and they're not prototypical players for his system. But the coach recognized pretty quickly Harris was worth keeping.

"He's such a fine player and a great kid who really wanted to be part of the Michigan renaissance," Beilein said. "If I'd sensed we were going to have to beg Manny to come here, it wasn't going to work. Manny wanted to come here just as much as we wanted him."

Now, if stars are revealed in the tournament, Michigan has a chance to be dangerous because its pair is rising. The Wolverines are young and small and aren't favored to beat an experienced Atlantic Coast Conference team like Clemson. But hey, a little faith and a few long shots can go a long way.

"I had scattered thoughts (when Beilein arrived), but once I learned what he was about, I definitely started believing," Sims said. "The sky's the limit, because we're hungry. Usually when you don't have something for a long time and you get a chance, you cherish it."

Developing nicely

It hasn't been easy. Sims went through growing pains, wandering around the perimeter before establishing himself inside, where he's dominant at times.

Beilein admitted a realistic goal before the season was the NIT, reservoir for the not-yet-ready. But suddenly, Harris and Sims look ready and confident. They've progressed so far, some wonder if they plan to stay to the end of their senior years.

"I don't really know, but I love college and I know I still have a lot to develop," Harris said. "I haven't thought about it at all."

Both say they haven't even considered leaving early, and that's smart. Heck, it feels like they just arrived.

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