February 16, 2014 at 7:33 pm

Terry Foster

No more excuses: Michigan State, Gary Harris need to sharpen their focus

East Lansing It was interesting to see the high-fives and fist pumps Spartan fans gave each other Sunday afternoon.

Of course that came before Michigan State’s lethargic 60-51 loss to Nebraska at Breslin Center. The Spartans celebrated Michigan’s 75-62 loss to Wisconsin and then heard cheers from Ann Arbor as their team gave temporary possession of the Big Ten lead right back. Someone forgot to tell Michigan State that looking ahead to Michigan, even for its fans, is dangerous business in the Big Ten.

Nebraska (14-10 overall, 6-6 in the Big Ten) is a bad loss. There are no excuses, even injuries, which seems to be the card MSU plays after every mishap. Although coach Tom Izzo played a point guard who did not shoot (Keith Appling), a shooting guard who cannot shoot (Gary Harris) and a big man in foul trouble (Adreian Payne), injuries were not the primary cause for this stinker.

Mental focus was an issue all game, even as the Spartans tried to rally from seven points down in the final seconds by passing up three-point opportunities. Mental focus was an issue from the opening play when coaches warned players about Nebraska big man Walter Pitchford popping outside for early three-point shots. So what happens? Pitchford scored the first bucket of the game on a pop-out three.

You could tell from the start the Cornhuskers came to play for something and the Spartans played to survive.

“We got exactly what we deserved,” Izzo said.

But in the end it was a bad loss, but no harm, no foul. Both Michigan and MSU are 10-3 in the Big Ten and are on a fast track for a Sunday showdown in Ann Arbor which could decide the Big Ten crown.

We could bottom line this as too much Terran Petteway (23 points) and not enough Harris, even though Harris scored 18 points and hustled for seven rebounds and four assists. His job is to be an efficient scorer, something he has not been for quite some time.

I sometimes wonder if Harris is thinking too much about the NBA. His mind often seems to drift elsewhere along with his jump shot.

“I am getting open shots so I still have to take them,” Harris said. “I don’t think about them. I don’t notice if I miss or not. My job is to put points on the board and play well defensively. Sometimes your shot is not falling or whatever. So you still have to have confidence to take the shot.”

Harris is a much better player than he’s displayed recently with MSU. But he seems to be in a fog and I don’t know if he needs better health, more shots in the gym or a big play to spark him. Maybe he simply needs to focus on this season and not the future.

He is an NBA player who looks like he is playing under a lot of pressure.

There was a jump shot late in the first half from 15 feet that you knew was not going even before he released the ball. His body language was twisted. And he looked like a confused young man, lacking confidence.

Later in the half he made an awkward pass, turning the ball over. And then on Nebraska’s final possession of the half he left his man who took a wide-open 3. Fortunately for the Spartans, the shooter missed.

But even in defeat Harris showed how he can turn things around. He needs to attack the basket more, which is something he began to do later in the game.

Harris was 5-for-15 against Nebraska and missed six of seven three-point shots. The good news is he did attack the cup and made all seven of his free throws. Harris must realize he is not a jump shooter now. He must become a more versatile player until he gets his shot right.

In his last six games Harris is 29-80 from the field (36.5 percent) and 10-42 in three point-shooting (23.8 percent). But he remains a gun slinger like all the other shooters that hit slumps.

“I will keep on shooting regardless,” he said. “I am starting to get a little bit of a rhythm. You have to have a short memory.”

That is true about Harris and his shooting woes and it is true about the Spartans, a team that blew a golden opportunity to take control of the Big Ten.


Alvin Ellis III, left, and Keith Appling watch as Michigan State falls to Nebraska, 51-60, Sunday. / Dale G. Young / Detroit News
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