UMass’s Harris is asked for a raise

UMass’s Ricky Harris, the leading returning scorer in the Atlantic 10, must do more for the Minutemen to be successful. UMass’s Ricky Harris, the leading returning scorer in the Atlantic 10, must do more for the Minutemen to be successful. (File/Tina Fineberg/Associated Press
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / November 12, 2009

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AMHERST - Derek Kellogg wasn’t asking for much. If the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team was intent on improving upon last year’s dismal 12-18 record, then the second-year coach was going to make one demand of his leading scorer, Ricky Harris.

“For us to be successful, he has to 100 percent raise every aspect of his game,’’ Kellogg said of the 6-foot-2-inch senior guard, who started all 30 games last season. A preseason all-Atlantic 10 selection who ranks as the conference’s leading returning scorer, Harris will be the focal point of a Minuteman team predicted to finish ninth in the league.

So when Kellogg asks Harris to raise every aspect of his game, he’s not asking for much, is he?

“The biggest thing for him is to be a leader and show all these new faces how we do business at UMass,’’ said Kellogg, who welcomes seven newcomers, including five freshmen (led by 6-7 forward Terrell Vinson), and transfers from Memphis (6-10, 275-pound junior Hashim Bailey) and Oregon State (6-9, 225-pound sophomore Sean Carter).

“I really couldn’t ask for a better person to do that, but he’s never really been in that leadership role before,’’ said Kellogg of Harris. “So it’s been a little bit hard for him to communicate verbally and not just by his actions. He’s a verbal kid, but I’m not sure if he totally has it where he knows how to tell guys what to do and when to do it. He’s getting better, but it’s been a process, more so this year because he’s the only senior.

“And now I’m asking him to be our leading scorer, I’m asking him to be one of our better defenders, and I’m asking him to be a leader to bring the new guys along and show them exactly how we do things.’’

Kellogg knows it will be a heavy burden for his lone senior starter to bear.

“But, if you want to be successful and you want to try and have a chance to do something special in your senior year, then that’s the role you have to take on,’’ said Kellogg.

Harris, who averaged 18.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 1.7 assists last season, is fully prepared to assume the responsibility - and not just on game nights. “It’s every single day in practice,’’ he said. “I just try to come out every single day and bring energy, even on the days when I’m not in an up mood or excited. I know if I’m down, then practice is not going to go well. My energy is what the team feeds off and I’ve got to bring it every single day.’’

Harris knows he must bring his scoring mentality to every game. And, as far as Kellogg is concerned, there is discernible difference between a shooter’s mentality and scorer’s. “The shooter is kind of a floater, a guy who’s looking for shots,’’ he said. “A scorer is a guy looking for baskets. A lot of times the shooter will float a little bit and hang out on the perimeter. But I like the scorer’s mentality, where you’re a little tougher and willing to get in there and make plays. A scorer will get to the free throw line a lot and that’s one of the goals I have for this team - to get to the free throw line more. We want layups, free throws, and threes.’’

And, by any measure, Harris is capable of delivering. Last season, Harris led the team in 3-pointers, hitting 38.7 percent (87 of 225), and was the team’s best foul shooter, hitting 79 percent (113 of 143). But, as Kellogg pointed out, it will be incumbent upon Harris to find his baskets within the framework of the offense. The coach wants Harris to get all of his teammates involved, particularly junior guard Anthony Gurley. Harris admittedly struggled last season to coexist with Gurley, a former Newton North standout who transferred from Wake Forest.

“I think at times last year they were trying to figure out how to play with each other,’’ Kellogg said. “Really, they’re both scorers and sometimes they’re running to the same spot, looking to score, but it’s been fun watching those two grow together.’’

Said Gurley, “Coming from high school, I was kind of used to playing along with another scorer. I played with another Division 1 player in the same backcourt in Corey [Lowe, a senior guard at Boston University], so it wasn’t really that hard at first. Still we had to get used to each other and get that chemistry on the floor.’’

It took some adjustment on Harris’s part, though.

“In a way it did, because I never played with Anthony, I always played against him on the AAU circuit and stuff like that,’’ he said. “I knew his game, but I never had the opportunity to play with him. So last year was hard because we really didn’t understand each other’s game like we do now.

“But as we’ve grown and matured, we’ve both come to see that we can make the game a lot easier for each other just by passing the ball to each other, being vocal with each other, and just basically taking care of each other.’’

“This year, we’re definitely more comfortable playing with each other,’’ Gurley said. “When you have two scorers on the floor it makes it very tough for the opposing team to defend you.’’

And Harris is difficult to defend.

“He just doesn’t stop moving,’’ Gurley said. “When a defender turns his head, or pauses for a second, he’s gone, trying to find an open shot. He sees the game so well and that’s what makes him so good.’’

Harris knows he’ll have to give his team more than just 20-25 points a night. This season, the Minutemen are going to depend on him for much more.

“ I don’t want to go out one night and score like 37 points and not have one assist,’’ he said. “I want to get my teammates involved in the game. That’s something I’ve learned from last year to this year; it’s not all about me. Because some nights my shot is not going to fall. It’s about what I’m going to do that night to make my teammates better. Am I going to rebound? Am I going to play defense? Am I going to share the basketball? I’ve got to be able to do all those things.’’