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At UMass, Harris gets the point

Ricky Harris came to then-coach Mark Amatucci's CalvertHall basketball program as a relatively small kid, utterlyunprepared for physical and mental battles to be foughton a high school court -- much less a college one. But takingthe lessons learned during his high school career, Harris hasturned himself into the University of Massachusetts' floorleader and is looking at a possible pro career.

"He was pudgy, not very big, and soft -- mentally andphysically," Amatucci said. "But he's the kind of player whoepitomizes the player who has to be in the gym everyday. Heworked constantly on his game. In the two years he was onour varsity, he scored 1,200 points for me. But the big thingwas, he grew up."

Today, Harris, now a senior at UMass, is the glue that hasthe Minutemen (10-19 overall, 4-11 conference) battling for aspot in the Atlantic 10 tournament that begins Tuesday.

Amatucci, who retired from coaching three years ago,was known for his fiery coaching style and his penchant forpushing players he believed had the talent to succeed. Hesaw that ability in Harris, and the good-natured high schoolerresponded.

"Coach Amatucci taught me the fundamentals of thegame," said the 6-foot-2 Harris, who has been on a hot streakover the past month.

Playing point guard for the first time in his career, he isaveraging 22.5 points in his last 11 games that included hisfour best performances of the season -- a 32-point night atRhode Island, 29 points at Duquesne, 27 against Saint Joseph'sand 31 at La Salle.

"Coach Amatucci taught me defensive principles, too,"Harris said. "And what has carried over is the need to workhard, be humble, listen to your coach and stay focused onyour dreams."

Staying focused on the big picture has been a continualeffort for Harris. He chose UMass because then-coach TravisFord showed interest in him and because Ford's programfelt comfortable. But after Harris' sophomore season,coach Derek Kellogg came aboard.

"It was kind of hard at first with a new coach, not knowingwhat to expect or what he expected," Harris said. "I thoughtabout transferring, but I went to see him and had a talk andfound out he understood me and I understood him."

When Harris played at Calvert Hall, he said he had critics,people outside the program who looked at him anddidn't think he could make it in a Division I program.

"They said I couldn't do this or that," he said. "It motivatedme."

Harris, always smiling, thrives on challenges. Back inhigh school, he noticed people had said the same thingabout his friend Juan Dixon, another Calvert Hall grad, whotook his 6-foot-1 frame to the University of Maryland and ledthe Terps to their first national championship in 2002 andthen went on to have a nine-year NBA career.

"Ricky idolized guys like Juan and Jack McClinton [theformer University of Miami point guard and 2009 NBA second-round pick]. They were constantly in the gym," Amatuccisaid. "He saw the work ethic and has become goodfriends with both of them. Ricky worked 12 months a year tomake himself into a player. Summer, spring, fall, nights andmornings. He'd call me at 8 p.m., asking, 'Can you comeopen the gym for me?' He still does that now when he's homefrom Massachusetts. I think what has brought him successis his work ethic and the people he has emulated."

Amatucci was pleased when he saw Harris respond thisseason to a switch from shooting guard to point guard, aposition he had never played.

"I was surprised by the move, but not that he could handleit," Amatucci said. "Ricky was always a wonderful perimetershooter, but now he has gotten bigger and stronger --he's still getting stronger. And he's gotten aggressive in thepaint. He can finish. He's a complete player, and I thinkCoach Kellogg recognizes that."

Kellogg, in fact, told Harris to simply go out, play his gameand have fun.

Harris couldn't have asked for better direction."The last couple of months, I've been looking at gamesdifferently," he said. "I want to go out remembered for something.I had a meeting with my coach and he told me that,and it made me feel more relaxed. It's allowed me to play mygame. It was a hard transition to the point because I'd neverplayed it. Basically, I can't explain what I do. I just bring itupcourt and then play my game."

Harris' career at UMass will be remembered: in Baltimore,where he is the first member of his family to get acollege scholarship, and at the university, where he is thesecond-leading active scorer in the Atlantic 10 (1,889 points)and within 17 points of becoming the school's third all-timeleading scorer. "And another thing," Amatucci said. "He'sgoing to graduate on time this spring."

Majoring in communications, Harris has a 2.7 gradepointaverage, and when he's finished with his basketballcareer, he plans to become a television sports analyst."There have been scouts and agents at my games," Harrissaid. "My dream is to play somewhere professionally nextyear, whether it's in the NBA or Europe."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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