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Harris relieved to return Tuesday

Tobias Harris didn’t panic Saturday morning, but Tennessee’s freshman star was undoubtedly a tad uneasy.

Freshman star Tobias Harris's return to practice Tuesday was big for Tennessee.

Harris, the Vols’ second leading scorer and rebounder, is a surefire NBA prospect who could jump to the league after one college season. That means this upcoming NCAA tournament trip might be his only one, and his effectiveness seemed slightly in jeopardy the morning after UT’s SEC tournament quarterfinal loss to Florida.

“There was a little worry,” Harris said.

A “little worry” means more when people like Tobias Harris say it. The player nicknamed “All-Business” doesn’t hyperbolize, and he doesn’t say words he doesn’t mean. When he says he’s a tad worried, that’s exactly what it means.

Harris couldn’t take a single step Saturday morning without pain shooting up and down his right side, courtesy of a nasty thigh bruise. He shook off the soreness to finish the game — he wouldn’t let trainers look at it until the team went back to the locker room — but the pain worsened as the adrenaline evaporated.

“I just played through it, but I knew afterward it would hurt, and it did,” the 6-foot-8 New York native said.

After spending the previous two days in the training room and on the bench, Harris returned to the court for Tuesday’s contact-free practice.

He wasn’t 100 percent, but he certainly wasn’t bad.

“It was real sore,” Harris said. “I couldn’t really walk well or sit down, but now it’s a lot better. I got out there today and just jogged around to see how it felt. ...It’s not really a worry, but I’m just glad I got out here today and was able to stay in shape and keep working.”

Tennessee's Tobias Harris, seen here dunking on Memphis's Will Coleman, has averaged nearly 21 points and six rebounds the past five games.

UT coach Bruce Pearl was pleased with his young star’s progress, too. Harris’s response to treatment had left trainers optimistic about his chances to play, but Tuesday was a big step in the process.

How the thigh responds to Tuesday night and Wednesday morning is the next step, and the hope is Harris will be cleared for Wednesday’s full-contact workout in Thompson-Boling Arena.

But the bottom line is that Harris, barring an unforeseen setback, will play in Friday’s 12:40 p.m. NCAA tournament opener against Michigan.

“It looked good, but we didn’t have contact today,” Pearl said Tuesday afternoon. “We’ve had two pretty good days (of contact) — Sunday and Monday, we went pretty hard — and then today was more review and teaching. It was good to get him back in review and get him some shots and get him moving a little bit, and then we’ll see how he responds.

“Tomorrow, our plan is to actually try to go a little bit live before we take off for Charlotte.”

Harris needs to be as mobile as possible Friday. Michigan’s starting power forward is Zack Novak, who is listed at 6-4 but admits he’s only 6-2. Though he’ll have a clear advantage against Novak in the paint, defending a potentially prolific 3-point shooter is something Harris hasn’t done this season.

“They’re going to have their coverages and ways to try to stop that,” Harris said of the Wolverines. “You know, 6-8 or 6-2, that’s definitely a post advantage, but I know they’re going to have a way in the post just to try to double down and strip-and-rip down there. I’m going to have find ways now just to be crafty and be a playmaker.”

Asked if he remembered the last time he defended a 6-2 player, Harris laughed and said “probably in high school.” It certainly never happened on the AAU circuit.

“He’s pretty undersized, but he can shoot the ball well, so it’ll be a good matchup for me,” Harris said. “I’m basically guarding a shooting guard. It’s different, but we have some good coverages for him, and for their whole team on offense, also.

“From what I’ve seen — and that’s just on film — but I can see he shoots the ball well. He’s a left-hander, so I know what I have to do against him.”

HARRIS HONORED AGAIN

Harris on Tuesday was named a second-team Freshman All-American by the United States Basketball Writers Association, but Pearl wasn’t overly pleased with the selection.

“I’m disappointed he’s not in the top five,” Pearl said. “I didn’t know that he hadn’t made that (first-team); not that I would say which guy I would take out, because it was a great class. The fact that he was in the top 10 freshmen (list) was just a wonderful thing. That stuff should matter a little bit. The kids probably say it doesn’t matter, and that they’d trade that for a team award, and I’m sure they would. But to be an All-American of any kind, and certainly to be one of the top 10 freshmen in the country, that’s where Tobias is. That’s where he expects to be.

“But, again, I would have liked and hoped and thought he would have been in the top five.

Pearl said an immediate impact from a highly touted prospect has been a good thing for his program.

“As you look at players, and you look at guys who have improved, you know, Tobias has improved throughout the season,” the coach said. “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.

“You know, he’s just ... he’s gotten better. He’s gotten bigger, he’s gotten quicker, faster, more versatile, and he’s absolutely been a delight to coach. He’s an amazing competitor.”

Harris, whose return to form after a mid-season ankle sprain has been clear the past two weeks, seemed reasonably pleased with the recognition. He was also named second-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches.

“I feel like it’s gone well,” Harris said of his freshman season. “It’s a great opportunity and an honor just to be on a Freshman All-American team. I wasn’t too focused on that stuff coming into the season, but I feel like I’ve been doing a great job as a freshman.”

Harris, who has consistently said he won’t talk about the NBA draft until this season is finished, said a deep NCAA tournament run is “very important” to him.

“I’m just really focusing and preparing and just finding ways out there to just help my team win games,” he said. “As the season’s winding down, I really want to win every game and go out on top. I’m just trying to do that.”

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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