Tennessee's Tobias Harris (12) dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Memphis Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
KNOXVILLE — On paper, the matchup probably couldn’t be more enticing for Tobias Harris.
But Tennessee’s 6-foot-8 freshman forward knows going up against 6-4 Zack Novak when the ninth-seeded Volunteers face eighth-seeded Michigan on Friday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Charlotte won’t be so easy.
“They’re going to have their coverages and ways to try to stop that,” Harris said after Tuesday’s practice. “Easily, 6-8 over 6-2 is definitely a post advantage, but I know they’re going to have a way in the post of trying to double down and strip-and-rip down there. I’m going to have to find ways just to be crafty.”
Harris, who Tuesday was named to the U.S. Basketball Writers’ Association all-freshman second team, has shown plenty of craftiness recently, scoring 16, 25, 18, 20 and 25 points in his last five games.
“As the season’s winding down,” Harris said, “I really want to win every game and go out on top, and I’m just trying to do that.”
Said UT coach Bruce Pearl: “He’s played terrifically. He has played great down the stretch. I know he’s excited about being in the tournament, and he’s a professional at a very, very young age because of his discipline, his toughness, his mental focus, his preparation.
“As you look at players and as you look at guys who improve, Tobias has improved throughout the season. He came in solid, but I think you’ve seen a lot of growth. You’ve seen a lot of growth defensively; you’ve seen some growth with his ability to shoot the basketball.
“We saw the one stretch that all freshmen have, and his was probably due to an ankle injury. He’s just gotten better. He’s gotten bigger; he’s gotten quicker, faster, more versatile; and he’s absolutely been a delight to coach. He’s been an amazing competitor.”
The undersized Wolverines start four players under 6-5, and only 6-8 Jordan Morgan and 6-9 Evan Smotrycz play more double-digit minutes in Michigan’s predominantly seven-man rotation. Novak plays power forward and leads the Wolverines in rebounds at 6-4.
With Harris and 6-10 center Brian Williams in the paint, UT figures to have an advantage on the glass, but the Wolverines’ smaller lineup presents problems of its own for the Vols defensively.
“Tobias Harris is guarding a guard,” Pearl said. “Tobias hasn’t guarded a guard since [former Vol] Dane Bradshaw practiced with us back in the start of the season occasionally, which is something that the former players are allowed to do. He is a bright player, and he’ll get adjusted to it.”
Michigan, which was outrebounded by nearly six boards per game in conference play, will have to make its own adjustments in keeping the taller Vols — Harris included — off the glass.
“They’ve gone up against Wisconsin, Ohio State, different teams [such as] Kansas that have had more size that have tried to take advantage,” Pearl said. “They do a pretty good job of covering for it. He’s not going up against a traditional power forward. Novak is a very, very physical player. One of the things that has prepared Tobias to go up against Novak is being guarded by Steven [Pearl] all year [in practice].”
Said freshman point guard Trae Golden: “That’s the game plan — definitely get Tobias the ball. He’s been good for us. Just with them having smaller guys, we’re going to definitely take advantage of that. He’s playing like an All-American. He’s leading us on and off the court, and the way he’s playing is really good and helping us a lot.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...