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Gut Punch

Before the Purdue game tipped off this past Saturday,  I took a gander around the internet to see what was going on Saturday morning. On the front (web) sports page of every Michigan, Detroit or Ann Arbor site was the announcement that Manny Harris was suspended for the game. Suspensions at this point in the season are usually a death sentence for a player's year. They usually mean grades, skipping class, or (in Michigan's august history) got caught taking money or favors. Getting past the headline, I was initially relieved to see that Harris was only suspended for a game. Then the reality set in, this was just the cherry on the top of the crap sundae that has been Michigan's basketball season, and Harris' in particular.

At a casual glance such an assertion seems misplaced. Harris is leading the Big Ten in scoring, third in rebounding, and is everyone's pick as the best guard in the conference. He's as talented as he is lanky, possessing a frame he can grow into while already possessing the hard wiring to move like a much smaller man. He's Michigan's unquestioned scoring leader, best player, and a media darling.

Looking underneath the numbers you get an entirely different story. Frankly, Harris isn't close to the player he was last year. Whether it's forcing a shot he shouldn't, launching a contested three pointer, or careening into the lane with his head down, Harris has been in his old world. For me, the defining game of the season for Harris was against Wisconsin. During that game he rushed unnecessary shots early in Michigan's second half  possessions that lead to Wisconsin's comeback. He floundered on defense and got himself into trouble on the offensive end.

Now he's getting himself into trouble in practice. (Yes. We talking about practice.). There are more than enough rumors swelling about what happened to warrant his suspension, but nothing solidly reported (though you really don't need a lot of imagination to form a decent guess). Last season Harris was building his own hype. This season he's listening to it. Unfortunately, whomever he's listening to is wrong.

Manny Harris G Shots FG% 3PT% FT% PPG A TO
2008-09 18 236 44.5 34.1 87.1 18.8 77 50
2009-10 18 255 44.7 28.2 79.5 19.2 86 57

Harris has played nearly 50 more total minutes through 18 games in 2009-10. He also has 16 fewer boards

Certainly Harris has the ability and frame to be a legitimate NBA prospect. But when faced with athletic guards his size, Harris has struggled mightily. When denied access to the rim, he happily settles for contested shots. His mid range game is non existent. His accuracy beyond the arc has nose dived as has his free throw shooting. In a league with a glut of out of control, poor shooting, athletic guards, Harris' only benefit to a team at this point is potential. And good (even mediocre) teams don't draft on potential when there a sufficient body of work on which to judge a player. Right now Harris is probably the best player on a mediocre Big Ten team. He struggles away from home and hasn't shown any ability to make his teammates better. First round talent, sure, but as of today, at best he's a late second round pick.

That's why this whole thing makes so little sense to me. Michigan wasn't a top 20 team going into this season. But they were a tournament bubble team. Their wins over Ohio State and Penn State, as well as their dominating until the last five minutes performances against Wisconsin and Northwestern show that this is a capable team. There's plenty of talent, just not a lot of size. Irrespective of either, Michigan just hasn't played as a team this season. No one's stepped up to lead the squad. No one has shouldered the responsibility of being the guy. Not just early in the game, but late when discipline and control matter. Harris may be Michigan's best player, but he's made more mental mistakes at critical times already this season than he made all of last year. The biggest by far, was the mistake that got him suspended. Leaders don't make mistakes like that.

No matter who you are, or what team you play for, when your best player takes himself out of a game or out of a team, it knocks the wind out of you. Puts you on the ground. You can tell from Manny's apology and Beilein's response, that it did. But they both know actions speak louder than words. And getting up ain't easy.