Though Michigan walked out of the Breslin Center the winner of a battle of two Great Lakes State basketball powers, Saturday night's brightest star was a member of the losing team.
Michigan State's Gary Harris was picked as the Big Ten's preseason player of the year, and despite an at times rocky start to his season, his biggest performance came in the conference's biggest game to date.
Harris dropped 27 points to lead all scorers and to lead the Spartans in a narrow 80-75 defeat against the in-state rival Wolverines. Harris added five rebounds and three steals to fill up the stat sheet. He converted on four of his six 3-point attempts and played great defense on the other end of the court. Though the game ended in a loss for Michigan State, it wasn't because of Harris' masterful performance.
"If Harris isn’t the best player on both ends of the court in the league," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said, "God bless whoever is."
Harris' 27 points set a new career high for the sophomore guard, but it was his duel with Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas that drew the attention. He certainly bested him in points, as Stauskas had 19, but it was his work guarding Stauskas that had coaches singing his praises after the game.
"Gary Harris — I guess I hadn’t noticed it as much last year because we got beat bad up here and Nik got knocked out of the game up there, but watching him play, I said this is one tremendous defender," Michigan head coach John Beilein said after the game. "We knew he was going to have to pick his spots, but he hit some daggers that were tough shots with Gary all over him. It was a great matchup of two really good players, and that was a pretty efficient game by Nik."
"I thought when Harris was on him, you know, I thought Harris did a hell of a job," Izzo said. "I thought when Harris was there we created some times when defensively, we were as good as we’ve been in years. Stauskas is a good player."
Stauskas, of course, won the ultimate battle, with his team getting the win. And he hit some clutch shots down the stretch, too. But when looking at the season as a whole, it's hard not to see this as a statement game for Harris, despite the loss. The big point total allowed Harris to jump Stauskas in the race for the Big Ten scoring title. Harris is now averaging 18.8 points per game, with Stauskas averaging 18.5.
And Harris has also turned it on of late. He's scored 23 points or more in each of his last three games.
In the end, it was the result of the game that mattered most. Michigan is now the conference's lone undefeated team with three straight wins over top-10 opponents. But Harris put on a show, and he had a big game in front of a national audience that might go a long way in nabbing him both preseason and postseason player of the year honors.