Meet Courtney Sims No. 1.
He’s the senior center of the Michigan basketball team and the Wolverines’ best low-post scoring option. Several coaches and players think he has the potential to be not just the best big man in the Big Ten conference, but in the nation.
In Michigan’s most recent exhibition game against Division II-Michigan Tech, he scored 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and had a game-high six rebounds. Makes sense so far.
Meet Courtney Sims No. 2.
Although he’s usually the tallest player on the floor, he can also be the hardest to find. He disappears from the action, sometimes for stretches lasting the entire game. If things don’t go his way early, he stops looking for his shot
This year’s exhibition opener was against Wayne State, a Division II team that lacks a player taller than 6-foot-5. The 6-foot-11 Sims scored five points on 2-of-4 shooting and had two rebounds.
Will the real Courtney Sims please stand up?
Meet Dion Harris No. 1.
He’s a senior guard for the Wolverines. He came to Michigan as the second-best shooting guard in the country not named LeBron James. His performance during his final high school season earned him the title of Michigan’s Mr. Basketball. The Wolverines expected him to score points immediately.
And he arrived on campus with a splash, averaging double figures in scoring during his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Harris’s 14.3 points per game led Michigan during his sophomore year.
Going into his junior season, he was expected to team with star point guard Daniel Horton to create one of the best backcourt tandems not just in the Big Ten conference, but in the nation.
Meet Dion Harris No. 2.
As a junior, he started slowly. A lingering injury and an inability to find a new role playing next to Horton combined to reduce his contribution to that of a role player.
His scoring average sank three points per game, and he launched 116 fewer shots on the year. In the NIT semifinal, he managed just five points on 1-of-9 shooting, and recorded three turnovers. In the NIT final, he didn’t improve. He scored just four points on 1-of-6 shooting, and turned the ball over another three times.
Harris and Sims have lived together during each of their four years in Ann Arbor. But loitering on their property has been the plague of inconsistency. Will this year be the year they evict this unwanted houseguest, and finally lead Michigan basketball to an NCAA Tournament berth?
Harris loses out on year, ‘M’ loses out on tournament
With Sims, the problem is from game to game. With Harris, year to year. But their struggle is the same. And with these two veterans unable to produce night in and night out last year, perhaps the most talented Michigan basketball team since the Fab Five fell short of the NCAA Tournament and everyone’s expectations.
For Harris, last season’s struggles began before the season even started. During the offseason following his sophomore year, he battled plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammatory foot condition. One of the best treatments for the injury is rest, so Harris sat out the preseason and was unable to condition with the team. During the early part of the year, when other players polished their skills and developed team chemistry, Harris needed to get himself back in shape. And that set him back.
“That was the toughest thing I had to deal with all year, just being inconsistent and not really playing up to my own expectations,” Harris said. “I’m confident in my abilities out there on the court, and I really do believe that I can do more for this team.”
Harris finally started to play well in mid-January. He scored in double figures in seven of eight straight games, and even topped 20 points in consecutive contests against Wisconsin and Penn State.
But on Feb. 9, Harris suffered another setback. He severely sprained his right ankle late in a tough loss to Ohio State and missed the next two games. When he returned against Michigan State, the rhythm he developed before his injury was gone. He did not reach double digits in any of the next four games.
And with Harris unable to contribute regularly, the Wolverines faltered. Including that Feb. 9 game with Ohio State, Michigan lost five of its final seven regular-season games, and then fell in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Unimpressed by the Wolverines’ late-season collapse, the NCAA Selection Committee ignored the team when creating the field of 65, and Michigan headed to the NIT for the second time in three years.
Even though he could blame his spotty performance on the injury, Harris offers no excuses about the way last season ended.
“Down the stretch of last year, and really all of last year, guys were expecting me to really bring it,” Harris said. “I was a junior last year, and I think the coaches, as well as the players, were depending on me to do things. So when I didn’t step up to the plate, that really puts some of the blame on me for the way the end of the season went.”
But it wasn’t all his doing. Fitting in next to a guard who demands the ball like Horton would have been tough for anyone. For Harris, coming off of a 2004-05 season when the Wolverines relied on him as the main offensive option, it was nearly impossible.
“Sometimes, what I found over the years, as a player and a coach, maybe because you had a dominant personality or person, that someone else wasn’t allowed to become what they maybe can become now,” Amaker said.
With Horton gone, it seems to be Harris’ time to shine. And he has already started asserting himself as the one to fill the leadership void that Horton created when he left. In the exhibition games, he directed freshmen guards Reed Baker and K’Len Morris to the spots they needed to fill in the offense.
Harris has also taken a more assertive role in the huddle.
“Dion directs the team really,” senior Brent Petway said. “He doesn’t say much (on the floor), but in the huddles, he’s telling us what we need to do.”
Harris’s mentality during games also hindered his performance last season. He explains that if his shot wasn’t falling, he would start to focus on his offensive production, and then his defense would suffer. But this year, he has refocused around playing hard all the time, on both ends of the floor.
Focus on playing hard. It sounds like an easy thing to do consistently. But for Sims, that’s exactly where he found trouble last season.
“I am so embarrassed”
Sims No. 1 showed up when the Wolverines welcomed Ohio State to Crisler last year. He recorded 26 points and grabbed 16 boards. Against Wisconsin at home, he recorded 18 points. And when he faced the Buckeyes on the road, he achieved a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
But then there were the other games, the contests when Sims No. 2 took the floor. At home against Michigan State, he tallied four points and three rebounds. When Indiana came to Crisler, he didn’t attempt a field goal and finished with one point and two rebounds.
The NIT Tournament final four was symbolic of Sims’s season. In the semifinal game against Old Dominion, Sims showed flashes of the dominant player everyone knows he can be. He made 8-of-10 field goals to score 18 points and also corralled seven rebounds. But in the final, he seemed to regress back to Courtney No. 2. He attempted just two shots, scoring two points and grabbing just one rebound.
There is a pattern in Sims’s inconsistency. When he faces off against a top big man, his play suffers. Michigan State’s front line featured Big Ten player of the year candidate Paul Davis. The Hoosiers depended heavily upon Marco Killingsworth, who finished seventh in the conference in scoring and fifth in rebounding.
When Sims excels, it usually comes against teams that don’t have a big man who can adequately match up with him. In nonconference games last year, which were mostly against teams without skilled post players, Sims tallied double-digits in nine of 11 contests. He grabbed at least six rebounds in 10 of those games.
But after the start of the conference season, Sims tallied double figures in just eight of the team’s 21 contests (including postseason). He gathered more than six rebounds just six times.
Asked why he struggled in some games last year, Sims responds with one word:
Sims continued: “Sometimes I would have games with 16 rebounds and the next day, I would have a game with one rebound,” Sims said. “I just need to make sure I concentrate and go after everything. I think a lot of things that I struggle with are not physical. I think I have everything physical, it’s just all mental.”
Assistant coach Andrew Moore agreed.
“I think Courtney gets frustrated when he gets double teamed a lot in the post,” Moore said. “There’s going to be nights when he’s not going to get a lot of good looks when he catches it on the low block when he gets doubled in the post. But he’s got to learn to manufacture points by getting on the offensive glass.”
The requisite concentration may have finally arrived for Sims. In his game against Michigan Tech in the preseason, Sims faced four players taller than 6-foot-8. After botching two early layups, Sims began to get frustrated with himself. Michigan coach Tommy Amaker noticed, looked directly at him, and screamed.
Sims scored all 21 of his points after the explosion.
Amaker emphasizes the “controllables” of a game. Injuries are an uncontrollable, but defensive effort and rebounds are controllables, and Amaker stresses the need to master them.
With his 6-foot-11 frame, his jumping ability and his incredibly long arms, Sims could be one of the best controllable players in the country.
“I don’t think Courtney has nearly tapped his potential as far as what we think he can do as a rebounder,” Moore said. “I think he’s as talented and as skilled as anybody in the country. But on the nights when people are going to make him give it up, he’s got to be a force for us on the offensive glass. He’s got to be able to create some scoring opportunities for himself by getting second- and third-chance opportunities.”
Numerous coaches and players insist that Sims has the talent to be one of the top rebounders in the Big Ten. But last year, he finished just 13th in the Big Ten in rebounding. Ahead of him were players like 6-foot-5 Penn State guard Geary Claxton and 6-foot-5 Minnesota guard Vincent Grier.
Sims said that kind of output is unacceptable.
“My goal, individually, is to average a double-double,” Sims said. “(Amaker) has said that there is no reason for me not to average double figures in rebounding, so that is what I’m trying to do. I am so embarrassed about how I was 13th in the conference in rebounding last year, and that’s just embarrassing because I cannot be that low.”
The Michigan coaches don’t think that Sims’s rebounding troubles last year were entirely due to a lack of effort. They think he was out of shape.
After coming into Michigan weighing less than 230 pounds, Sims realized during his freshman year that he needed to gain weight in order to sustain the level of physical play necessary to be a successful Big Ten center. With a new eating program, Sims put on 25 pounds.
But the extra poundage has hurt Sims, causing him to be unable to play for an extended amount of time or go after rebounds aggressively. He played more than 30 minutes on just five occasions last year. His shooting percentage was very good (63 percent), but he often did not put up enough shots to be effective – perhaps a result of tiring quickly and not having the energy to create them. And Sims certainly wasn’t aggressive going after offensive rebounds. He managed more than three offensive rebounds just once during conference play, and he finished with one or zero offensive boards in 15 Big Ten games.
Losing pounds, gaining passion
So this summer, the Wolverine coaching staff decided that Sims’s biggest task would be to lose weight. The coaches wanted Sims to drop at least 13 pounds from the 258-pound frame with which he entered the summer. Sims succeeded in bringing his weight down, and his coaches are looking to take advantage of his new condition.
“We need Courtney to have a consistent senior year,” Amaker said. “He’s capable of doing that. We talked about him shedding a few pounds and trying to be a little lighter to be a little bit more active, agile and quick, to get up and down the floor a little better and to be in better shape. That’s one of the things that we talked about for our team. Courtney is a guy that’s attacked that very well so I’ve been pleased with that.”
It’s important for Sims to be able to keep up with the up-tempo style of play that Michigan hopes to employ this year. But necessary to that style of play is a point guard who can direct the team and control the pace of the game.
With Horton gone, it’s up to Harris to be that type of leader. This summer, he worked on developing his game as a point guard.
“The last time I played (point guard) was in my sophomore year when I had to really come in and play (due to Horton’s knee injury and legal trouble),” Harris said. “It was unexpected and kind of just got thrown on me. Now, I’m really comfortable with the ball in my hands. I worked on it all summer and really had it in my hands a lot.”
Harris committed himself to basketball during the offseason, working in the gym even when the other guys took days off. That’s a switch from the approach he took in previous years.
“In the past, I really got away from having a passion for the game,” Harris said.
For a natural scorer like Harris, it might be tough to evolve into a point guard that sets his teammates up before looking for his own shot. For help with that, he turned to an assistant coach who has known the guard since he was 9 years old.
“He is a very cerebral player, he has really good skills and he has really good understanding of the game,” Mike Jackson said. “So we talked about him playing the lead guard and not putting so much pressure on himself to score, because that will take care of itself. He needs to work on running our team, making good decisions and creating plays for our team.”
Harris lost weight this summer as well, reducing his body fat to 7 percent, and he and Sims were not alone. The football team tried to get smaller and faster, and the two squads saw a lot of each other during the summer. With the football team 10-0 and heading toward a possible National Championship game, Sims and Harris can see their hard work paying off in the future, as well.
“We look at the football team doing well now and that drives us,” Sims said. “Dion and I look at that and see the opportunity. They went through struggles last year, and we can do the same thing that they are doing right now. A lot of them tried to lose weight, and that’s basically what I did. And they always have high expectations and they have to deal with that, so seeing what they went through, that drives us.”
Their final (four) chance?
Both Sims and Harris entered Michigan with lofty individual expectations. They have yet to live up to their highly touted r