October 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

With a healthy Gary Harris, Michigan State sets sights on national title run

East Lansing The first decision felt like a weight off his shoulders. The second one felt like added weight, and it was.

But for Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris, thats a relief, nonetheless, as he looks stronger, feels healthier and says hes eager to shoulder a bigger load for a team thatll begin this season with a top-five national ranking.

Tuesday was media day at Michigan State, and most of the talk centered on the lofty expectations, which coach Tom Izzo did little to quell. He says he feels better about this teams prospects than any in the last decade, going all the way to the 2000 national championship team and the Final Four squad that followed it.

And Izzos players, as youd expect, feel the same.

Go big or go home, said Harris, the Big Ten freshman of the year after averaging nearly 13 points in an injury-plagued debut last season. I just feel like those are our expectations.

I mean, we have the talent and the tools. That should be the goal. Thats what we want to do. We want to win a national championship. And I feel like if we dont reach that, we will have failed.

Its a realistic goal, certainly, with four starters returning from a team that went 27-9 and advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals. The Spartans have a veteran core, a deep bench and a pair of likely first-round NBA draft picks in forward Adreian Payne and Harris.

Sticking around

Both players considering going pro last spring, but decided to stay. Only for Harris, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard and former McDonalds All-American out of Indianapolis, that difficult decision followed a more painful one in April.

Harris suffered the first in a series of shoulder injuries last November, and he spent the rest of his freshman season in and out of the training room. On and off the court, too, as his shoulder popped out of place more times than he cares to remember. Hed go up for a layup or a dunk, and hed come down favoring his shoulder. Hed dive for a loose ball or reach for a steal and come away wincing. If it happened once, it probably happened a half-dozen times.

He played hurt the whole year, Izzo said. He just didnt tell anybody.

He didnt have to, really. They all knew, and there were plenty of discussions about how to handle it. Harris decided against having surgery during the season, opting instead to play through the discomfort with treatment and rest. And a fair bit of apprehension, which is why Izzo said more than once last spring, You have not seen the Gary Harris I recruited yet.

We will this season. Thats the expectation, at least.

When his freshman season finally was over, after a disappointing Sweet 16 loss to Duke in which Harris admittedly got schooled by Seth Curry and partially dislocated the shoulder again, there was another decision to make.

Two, actually.

After consulting with specialists, Harris again opted for rest and rehab over surgery, skipping summer all-star camps and spending 5-6 days a week strengthening the muscles around his shoulder joints, among other things.

About the same time, he decided to pass on the NBA draft despite being projected as a potential lottery pick as maybe the third- or fourth-best shooting guard on the board behind Ben McLemore (Kansas) and Victor Oladipo (Indiana).

That was my dream, so at times I was like, This is what youve been waiting for, so why pass it up? Harris said.

Yet at other times, he says, hed ask himself, Are you just trying to get to the NBA, or are you trying to stay in the NBA? What are you trying to do?

A different Harris

What hes trying to do now is make the most of this opportunity at Michigan State, something his teammates cant wait to see.

It was pretty tough for him last year, said Denzel Valentine, Harris roommate and a fellow sophomore guard. There were times where he really just played through it and a lot of people wouldve just quit.

But I think youll see a different Gary this year. Youll see a more confident player thats healthy. When youre hurt, you kind of hold back what you can do.

An ankle injury suffered in late August held him back earlier this fall, but Harris is back practicing now and says hes feeling great, from head to toe.

Izzo jokes about NBA scouts telling him Harris is illegal and un-American because hes a shooting guard thats also an elite defender. He calls his backcourt tandem of Keith Appling and Harris the two best defensive guards in the country.

But its at the offensive end and in transition that a healthy Harris, along with a more-confident Branden Dawson, now 18 months removed from his torn ACL, where the Spartans should get the biggest boost.

I think we should be a team that can run, run, run and run, Izzo said.

The shoulder concerns forced Harris to be more of a spot-up shooter last season, and he did shoot better than 41 percent from 3-point range. But much like Dawson, Harris is at his best when hes slashing to the basket, attacking the offensive boards, and getting out in the open court, all of which he expects to do this season. Finally.

As he put it Tuesday, Its time to showcase my whole game.

As his coach says, its time to see the real Gary Harris.

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Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris says he's healthy after a strong, but injury-plagued, first season in East Lansing. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News