After an October preseason practice during which Eron Harris became familiar with the Bob Huggins’ treadmill of punitive motivation, the freshman spoke about adapting to college basketball and “trying to find my place” on the West Virginia basketball team.
Now, as WVU enters the final four weeks of the regular season, Harris knows his place: It’s scoring option No. 1.
With seven double-digit outputs in the last eight games, Harris’ emergence as the Mountaineers’ go-to guy arrived sooner than anyone could have imagined. His team-leading 13.7 points per game during that stretch tickles Huggins, who recalled how not so long ago Harris “was just one of the guys kind of running around out there.”
In his first college start at Iowa State on Jan. 16, Harris spent the opening half playing like a guy who was just running around. He missed 4-of-5 shots and, to the coaching staff’s eyes, seemed overwhelmed. After halftime, however, with WVU trailing the Cyclones by 17, Harris ignited a comeback charge with 5-of-5 shooting, including four 3-pointers. Two of those baskets were catch-and-shoot bombs from logic-defying range, signs that Harris could become the floor stretcher WVU’s offense desperately required.
“I’ve had to mix my game up and get to the rim some. I’m in the (opponents’) scouting report as a shooter, so people are keying on me as a shooter and it’s tougher to get to open.”
Harris has made 32-of-73 shots (43 percent) in his eight starts, and his season-long 3-point percentage (.385) would rank third in the Big 12 save for the fact Harris is three makes shy of the qualifying minimum.
“My coaches are telling me now I’m not a freshman any more — I’m a player,” Harris said, and opponents are telling him through their extended defenses that he’ll have earned their attention.
“Now everybody is kind of setting up their defense to make sure he doesn’t get the looks that he got before,” Huggins said.
To Harris’ credit, he has adapted his game as defenses have altered theirs. While coming off the bench in this season’s first 15 games, Harris attempted a free throw every 13 minutes. As a starter, he’s getting to the line once every six minutes.
“I’ve had to mix my game up and get to the rim some,” he said. “I’m in the (opponents’) scouting report as a shooter, so people are keying on me as a shooter and it’s tougher to get to open.”
Coincidentally, Harris joined the starting five that night in Ames because fellow freshman Terry Henderson remained in Morgantown with a back injury. Though Henderson hasn’t regained his starting role, that seemed of little matter Saturday when he and Harris combined for 31 points in a 63-50 win at TCU and played together during crucial late-game stretches.
Harris envisioned that sort of cohesion — instead of fearing a logjam at the shooting guard position —when the three-star recruits committed to WVU within 22 days of one another in October 2011. Of late the duo’s ability to shoot sideline-to-sideline has led the Mountaineers to a statistical spike: Three straight games of 46-percent shooting or higher, which WVU had accomplished only three times in the season’s first 20 games.
Said Henderson after the rookies blistered TCU: “It’s fun playing with Eron because it’s hard for the defense to figure out. When we’ve got two athletic shooters on the floor, it’s hard to cover.”
Harris’ take on the freshman pairing — “There’s a bright future for us,” — portends well for future WVU seasons, but it could make the difference in whether this one leads to the NIT or something bigger.
Riding a mini-wave of three consecutive wins, the Mountaineers return to the Lone Star State on Wednesday night to face Baylor.
“We’ve got three in a row,” Harris said, “so let’s make it four.”