It wasn’t the biggest play of the game, but its significance for Nick Harney can’t be overlooked.
At the opening of the second half against Ball State on Wednesday night, Cardinals forward Majok Majok grabbed for a rebound.
Harney, a University of Akron junior forward, smacked the ball from Majok’s hands and then grabbed the ball. He has made those plays this season — the gritty, tough ones — especially in the past five games. He probably doesn’t make that play last season.
It’s those kinds of plays that have made coach Keith Dambrot’s life a bit difficult this week with the return of forward Chauncey Gilliam, who missed two weeks with a minor injury to his left knee.
Gilliam and Harney compete for playing time, but Harney has averaged more than 14 points in the prior four games, giving the Zips a boost.
“You just play the best guys,” Dambrot said. “That’s what you do; that’s what I’ve always done.”
Right now, Harney fits best in the Zips’ starting lineup, and the boatload of potential he brought with him from Cleveland Benedictine High School is starting to turn into production.
From Cleveland to Akron
He always had the potential, Benedictine’s former coach Rob Stircula said during a phone interview.
But he didn’t have the grades when he transferred to Benedictine for his junior year of high school. It probably was a good thing that OHSAA transfer rules kept him off the court for a year. It gave him that time to concentrate on academics.
“He was at a place where they really didn’t care about him, and they needed him to stay eligible for basketball that season,” Stircula said.
Harney can look back on that part of his still-young life and agree with his former coach’s assessment, but time has passed and clarity has taken root in a mind that is still expanding.
“I wanted to play basketball. I wasn’t really seeing what was most important,” Harney said. “I really wasn’t focused on school because I didn’t realize how important it was until maybe my senior year. At that time, I was really naive to the fact that they would ever do something like that.”
If he was naive, that changed with the transfer to Benedictine where he had to sit out his junior year, likely costing him scholarship opportunities at bigger colleges.
He learned a lesson. Arriving at UA, Harney was unable to play his first year because his grades didn’t meet minimum standards. He worked hard to play last season. It’s certainly been UA’s gain.
“I always thought Nick was going to be one of the best, by far, guys that I’ve coached,” Stircula said. “He was one of the tougher guys on our team.”
Tough and confident
Dambrot and Zips fans realize what they have in Harney: an athlete who plays tough who can score in bunches and who appears to possess supreme confidence. Above all, he’s resilient.
He made just one of his first five shots as he and the Zips struggled against a determined Ball State team. He then made five of his next eight and finished the game as the Zips’ leading scorer with 15 points.
“Being 6-foot-7 and being versatile [enough] to play on the wing or post really helps him out,” Stircula said. “He’s tough to guard. He just needs to play harder, longer than he does.”
Dambrot is looking for more.
“I think he should be much better,” Dambrot said. “That’s how talented he is. He’s a gifted guy.”
Finding the difference
There has been a significant change from last year, when Harney came off the bench to average 8.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 29 games.
Stircula said that it was an issue at Benedictine because Harney was a younger senior, graduating at 17. Although he was part of a triumvirate that led the Bengals to the state tournament, Stircula said that Harney would have been better with another year of high school.
That immaturity followed him to UA. He can admit it now. He wasn’t thrilled with coming off the bench.
“I’ve always started. I’ve started my whole life, but Coach is trying to get me to see the big picture as far as the team and team goals,” Harney said. “So not starting immediately was big for me, so when I finally got out there, it was just easy to play — play hard.”
Stircula and Harney remain close, and Stircula doesn’t hesitate to offer his former player advice that complements and reinforces much of what Dambrot has said, focusing on the weaker aspects of Harney’s game from last season.
“You’re 6-7, and you’re probably the most athletic guy in the MAC and you’re getting two rebounds per game,” Stircula told Harney. “If you’re rebounding and play defense, no matter whether you’re starting or coming off the bench, Coach is going to keep you in the game longer.”
Dambrot sees something else at play, too.
“He’s stronger. He’s still not perfect. [But] he’s more consistent,” he said.
If that serves as the impetus for Harney’s current success, it continues to work judging by his recent efforts.
“You have to see the big picture. You can’t fake it. If you fake it, you’re not going to start,” Harney said. “I was trying to fake it last season and the beginning of this season. You really have to buy into a system and what [the coach] has going.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.