In most competitive sports there are few criticisms more upsetting to a player than being labeled soft. So when Michigan senior guard Dion Harris stepped forward last week and spoke candidly about his team's lack of toughness, it raised a few eyebrows. It was a critique that had been levied by external sources for quite some time, but never internally…at least in a manner where it could be heard publicly. For the first time, a team member…its best player was highlighting what many had already observed.
"Everybody agrees," Harris said, not budging from the stance he took a week earlier. "Coach Amaker said the same thing. We keep everything real when we're talking among each other and talking as a team. We all know what we have to do and what we've been struggling with, and that was the toughness part of the game. That was just me stating the obvious… stating what I thought and felt in my heart."
Harris' comments were the display of off-court leadership that the Wolverines have been searching for since Daniel Horton was lost to graduation. It was a step outside of the proverbial box for the native Detroiter. After a horrible outing versus Iowa in which he went 0/11 from the field, was reluctant to take open shots toward the end of the game, and was shell-shocked in the locker room after the defeat, he could sense that the team needed something more from him than his play. It was time for him to step up and accept it.
As the Michigan's best and most complete player, it's clear that the rest of the team looks to Harris for direction. Whether it is his play on the floor, or his reassurance during times of adversity… the leadership mantle has been passed to him. Figuring out exactly what that meant has been a yearlong process for the normally laid back youngster. He had been so used to deferring that aspect of basketball to Horton over the years. He had still been doing it to a certain extent with three other seniors on this year's team. Now he realizes that he has to take more on his shoulders.
" When things are going well you tend not to say nothing and let a lot of things slide," Harris said. "When you get to a losing streak, it's like you've GOT to say something. You've got to let some things be known. That was the situation this time around. "
"The guys tell me that (he has to put the team on his shoulders) all of the time," continued Harris. "When we're going in and out of the huddles and I'm not having a good game, the guys always come around to talk to me to tell me they still need me to do that. I know they have confidence in me and I know they are looking for me to put this team on my shoulders as far as playing AND leading. It's just a matter of me going out there and doing it. I know that's what they want from me and I know that's what they need from me. It's just a matter of me going and doing it."
The pressure to "go out and do it" was clearly magnified when Harris made his feelings public. That said, the best leaders relish that kind of pressure and go out and perform in spite of it. In the two games since he spoke out, the former Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan has done a good job of practicing what he preached. In the games versus Ohio State and Minnesota he averaged just over 20 points and three assists per game while shooting 67% from the field and from behind the arc.
"You can't say one thing and then go out there and not back up what you said," Harris said matter-of-factly. "It's always huge when you come back and make a statement with your play to back up the statement you made verbally."
Harris' teammates have definitely taken notice of both his words and his actions. In the short term, it seems to have made an impact.
"I think a lot of guys may have taken (the comments) to heart," said Michigan senior forward Brent Petway. " I think coming in to halftime (of the Minnesota game) a lot guys talked about that. They were saying 'we're not playing hard…they are playing harder than us.' I think we all just got on the same page, came out and put it on the line."
Harris' impact is even more pronounced when it comes to the younger players on the squad. They in particular look to follow his lead. "I know I look up to him," said freshman center Ekpe Udoh. "He is an older player and he is a cool guy. When he (steps up and holds the team accountable) he just sets himself aside from everyone else and he is just a bigger player. He has more of an effect on the game even if he doesn't score."
At this point, the key for Harris and the Wolverines is to sustain the tough efforts they've put forth over the past two games. They know they have a golden opportunity to show that they really have turned the corner when they face the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing tonight.
"It's always intense, but I think with the situation both teams are in it's really going to be a good game," Harris said. "Both teams are going to want to come in and get a win by any means necessary. Obviously it's hard to win on the road, but I think we have enough talent and enough good players on this team to go there and win if we just go and execute our stuff and to what we have to do. You should always feel like you can go somewhere and win, but seeing the situations that both teams are in, we have to go up there and think win. We can't settle for anything less."