Depth was never going to be a strength of this year’s team with the youth and lack of experience behind the starting five (minus Tanner Borchardt), and that problem was compounded when freshman guard Amir Harris went down with mono.
Harris was only playing about 12 minutes per game earlier in the season, and he logged just three minutes in his last game before he got sick (Nebraska’s 85-78 loss at Minnesota on Dec. 5), but he was another option to eat up minutes for the starters and provide some defensive and rebounding energy.
While he was sick, Harris lost 20 pounds, according to Coach Tim Miles.
“It was pretty hard,” Harris said. “Just my body, I would literally just be in bed all day. My body would cramp up and it was hard to eat, so that’s where all the weight loss came from. I had a lot of support from home, a lot of support from here, a lot of people helping me back on track so it was really nice.”
Harris said he’s never been that sick before. He missed six games over the course of a month, stuck in bed while his team took the court.
“It was hard, but I was really glad to see that we were winning and we were on a good pace,” Harris said. “Beating Creighton and beating Oklahoma State, so that was nice to see even though I was out.”
Nebraska won the first four games without Harris but dropped the last two at Maryland and at Penn State.
Harris made his return to the lineup against Penn State on Jan. 10 at home. Miles chose not to play him on the road against Indiana but he saw the floor in each of Nebraska’s last two games, against Michigan State and Rutgers.
“I’ve been feeling a lot better,” Harris said. “Just in the past couple of weeks, it’s just been a mindset thing of just getting back on the court, learning the plays that the guys are running and just getting that vibe back. It’s been a good process. I feel like I’ve made a lot of improvement but the main thing is just getting that weight back on and being able to just go out and play in the conference.”
So far, Miles has limited Harris to strictly first-half minutes since his return. He played four minutes against Penn State (1-of-2 from the free-throw line, one rebound, one assist, one foul, plus-2), one against Michigan State (one steal, minus-4) and five against Rutgers (two points, 1-of-1 shooting, one rebound, one foul, plus-minus of 0).
“He’s 100 percent in terms of ready to go,” Miles said. “He’s still a little underweight, but what he really provides — I think, when is mindset is great — is defensive intensity and his ability to rebound. That’s where you have that guard that can go in and help board, that’s why I think he’s important to us as we go down throughout the conference year.”
Harris has scored 16 points in 112 minutes so far this season, attempting just 10 shots and eight free throws. He wasn’t a great offensive player when he arrived on campus and he’s missed a lot of development time in the heart of the season. In addition to gaining back the weight he lost and building up his stamina, he’s got to find his place within Nebraska’s system on both ends of the floor.
“What’s really hard too is, as you’re getting your strength back, now you’ve sat out so long,” Miles said. “We’ve played probably five, six games without him and then triple the practices, so the guys are up and running and you’re just trying to get your energy back. I think the speed of the game and just your rhythm, it really affects your confidence and things like that. We need to get him out there and I think the better his mindset when it comes to defense and rebounding, the better off he is for us.”
Even so, Miles’ apparent “first half only” rule for Harris thus far is a bit curious. To my amateur eye, Harris’ five-minute stretch against Rutgers included two good plays, one bad one and a handful of possessions off good to neutral defense and staying out of the way on offense.
Here are the two good plays, contained in one sequence:
Amir Harris only played five minutes against Rutgers, but this sequence shows what he can bring to the table for #Nebrasketball. pic.twitter.com/LGyiWiIEuS
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) January 22, 2019
He fought over a screen, dug in against the drive with his length to force his man into a wild shot, ran the floor and finished at the rim in impressive fashion, something he is more than capable of doing regularly.
The bad play was a poor closeout that gave up a drive and resulted in a three-point play when Harris fouled his man from behind.
Harris’ first few minutes included a 10-2 run by Nebraska, though the Scarlet Knights rallied and wiped out that advantage before Harris sat down for good, resulting ins his plus-minus of 0. Still outside of one bucket on each end, Harris wasn’t directly involved with points on either end. Pulling him for one mistake and not going back to him int he second half seems harsh, especially with the minutes load Nebraska’s starters have been carrying. Harris can help, especially when Nana Akenten is struggling as much as he did on Monday.
“He’s been doing well,” Borchardt said. “I know he was sick for a while, for that month or so, and he’s slowly getting better and better and almost back to his full shape.”
Harris said he’s willing to do whatever he can to contribute.
“If that means bench energy, if that means coming in and getting rebounds, locking a guy up, I’ll do whatever I have to do as long as we keep winning,” Harris said.
Harris is Nebraska’s best perimeter rebounder (and one of its best rebounders overall), and the glass has been an area of concern for the Huskers all season. He’s still a ways off from being back to top form and long-term, he has to develop his jump shot to be a viable rotation cornerstone, but in short bursts, Harris can help the Huskers right now and the more he plays, the better he has a chance to learn from his mistakes and grow.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.