It is no secret that when a young man makes the jump from high school to college in any sport, there is the proverbial wall. That place where their body either physically or mentally has never been. A few never hit, but most do and at a wide variance of time.
Superstar freshman Gary Harris is no different. Tom Izzo has started to really see it.
Izzo addressed the freshman wall saying earlier this week that, “The freshman wall, you know, it’s like when I ran a marathon once and everybody told me the 20-mile mark is when you hit the wall. I got to 20 miles and I felt pretty good. I said that wall theory is out the door. The 21-mile mark, my face started going numb, you know. Some guy who was 80 passed me and I knew I was in trouble. So walls hit different people at different times but for the most part, freshmen go through a period. I think we’ve had 75 practices now and we’ve had over 20 games with the exhibition and you know, we’ve been running through the top-25 all year and two of them have started a lot. That’s always an added pressure.”
He specifically addressed Gary Harris and the freshman wall. “Gary was our leading scorer for a while and that’s added pressure, you know. They’re not just guys who are subs or guys who are starters that aren’t expected to do much. In Gary’s case, he’s gotta defend the best guy a lot of times and score points so there’s pressure on those guys.”
He went on, “I think they know it. I don’t think they know how to work their way through it but I think they’re aware of it. Talked to both of them, they both texted me and said we can see we’re not doing enough and that’s what I love about them. Those two kids are gonna be really good before it’s all said and done but we do gotta get them better quicker. So, we play two ranked teams and they’re both on the road. This is one time I can honestly tell you I don’t go to my team and say, ‘This is a big week.’ What I said is, ‘It’s a big season.’ Every game has just never been like this. So, consequently, every week is a big week and every game is a big game and it’s not a cliche or coach-speak this time; it’s a life. That puts more pressure on guys, too, because they never get a minute to settle down. So where are they? They’re a little bit screwed up in the brain I’m sure but they’re not out of it either. They know exactly what’s going on and I see both of those guys jumping back a lot of times, a lot of times it’s that last week of January or that first week of February. In my time, I’ve seen freshmen struggle a little bit but as tough as both of them are, I have no qualms they’ll bounce back. They’re still playing pretty good, they just need a little more, especially in shooting.”
Yesterday after practice Izzo was asked again about Harris and the wall. Harris was nonexistent offensively against the Badgers on Tuesday night going 2/3 for six points. Izzo said that, “I think he understands, had a film session with him today. I still don’t think he’s ready to shoot all the time so I want him to be. Here’s one kid I’m saying, ‘shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it,’ and I think he has to. I think our veterans understand that and they’re gonna try to talk to him a little bit and help him out tonight. I have no fear that he’ll fight through it and he’ll be ready to play this game.”
After having spent that special time with Tom Izzo Thursday morning, Izzo tried to show Harris on film ways he can push through the wall. Harris said that Izzo showed him, “Different ways I can get off my shot. The way I come off the screens, the way I can get myself the easier shots. I only took three shots in the Wisconsin game. Just different ways to get me more involved in the game.”
Harris said of fighting through the wall that, “My teammates are just picking me up. Saying just keep climbing the wall, you’ll be fine. They keep saying they aren’t losing faith in me. Just keep playing and everything will be fine.”
Certainly having sustained injuries to both shoulders, one of them twice hasn’t been easy on Harris. I asked if he thought the brace he wears on his left shoulder was going to come off any time soon. He said, “I plan on wearing it. My shoulders are getting better these days, but I am just wearing it for precautionary reasons.”
Super assistant Dane Fife has joined in trying to fix the young super star and his woes. Fife is to Indiana basketball what Drew Neitzel is to Michigan State. He is a gutsy star that played all out every game, practice and even pickup in the off season. Fife has been an amazing assistant for Izzo after a difficult adjustment period, and his help with Harris could pay off big.
Having been the super star, Fife understands better than anyone on the staff what Harris is battling both on the court and in his mind. I asked Fife about what he is doing to help the youngster. Fife said, “Helping Gary focus on the things that make him successful. Then continuing to learn the things that are going to make him successful down the road. Because I think what really happens is teams scout him. They understand what his strengths and weaknesses are. As a freshman I think there really is a tendency to not really know how to counter the defenses. I think that is what we are doing with Gary right now. Not necessarily just himself, but what the great players do to counter certain situations. There are probably three or four counters to each situation so I think that is one thing we want him to do. We want him to continue to do offensively. The second part is making sure that he is getting his rest and eating right. We really probably don’t have to worry about that with Gary. The third thing is helping him focus on what is at stake. Because there is a lot at stake each and every game. Probably the biggest part is understanding how important it is to show up every day to get better and approach every game it like it is Indiana.”
Harris will end up in the NBA. It could be much sooner than later, but in the meantime he has to battle through the wall. We all know he will, but for a young super star that is used to having the game he loves come easy, for the first time in his life it isn’t.
Perhaps getting back home in Indiana, surrounded by thousands of booing fans that are angry he isn’t wearing the crimson and cream, could be just what the doctor ordered. One thing is certain; his head coach will be in one ear and his super assistant in the other.