Virginia’s Joe Harris had just about every skill a college basketball player could ask for before this season.
He already knew how to set up his defender going around the cavalcade of screens in Coach Tony Bennett’s motion offense, the sort of innate court sense that prompted Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon and Virginia Tech Coach James Johnson to call Harris one of the smartest players they’ve ever faced.
Harris already overcame whatever he lacked in athleticism with a jump shot straight out of the coaching manual, learned from years spent tagging along to gyms with his father, also named Joe, his head coach at Chelan High in Washington state.
He had already developed the toughness, work ethic and basketball IQ Bennett admires most about him, borne partly from being the first recruit who ever signed with Bennett at Virginia, and coming across the country to an unfamiliar place to do so.
But what Harris lacked was fairly obvious to senior point guard Jontel Evans on Tuesday night when the Cavaliers routed in-state rival Virginia Tech, largely because his teammate had one of those games where “it was just in his eyes.”
“Joe finally has that killer mind-set, which we’ve been wanting him to have since last year,” Evans said. “He’s just playing unbelievable basketball right now.”
With Mike Scott graduated and in the NBA, Harris has become the focal point of a surging offense that travels to North Carolina on Saturday in a game that will go a long way toward determining whether Virginia can earn back-to-back berths into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994-95.
The Cavaliers have scored at levels rarely seen from a Bennett-led team in recent weeks, when they have reeled off seven wins in eight games. But it’s Harris’s career-high numbers that are truly remarkable.
He’s fourth in the ACC in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game, and leads the conference in three-point shooting (48.4 percent) despite the methodical pace of Virginia’s offense. Harris is the only guard in the league shooting better than 49 percent overall, and his efficiency has improved since ACC play began.
Harris trails only Virginia Tech point guard Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer, in points per ACC game (17.8) and he’s shooting 50 percent from three-point range in conference games, all while not ranking within the top 10 in the league in minutes played.
Harris said any change in approach was the result of Virginia’s five-game exhibition tour through the Netherlands and France last August, when the junior realized just how much production the Cavaliers lost from last year’s team.
“I knew I had to take it upon myself to be a lot more aggressive and assertive,” he said.
Harris, who broke his hand when Virginia played at North Carolina in 2012, also added a dimension to his game, “the threat of if you come up tight, he can get by you,” Bennett said this week.
“Coach Bennett is always changing up things to get him good looks and he moves so good without the ball, it’s really tough to defend no matter if he’s off or he’s on,” forward Akil Mitchell said.
Bennett appreciates the layers to Harris’s game. When he scored 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting at Maryland last Sunday, the coach raved about the tenacity his star player showed diving on the floor to create a jump ball in the second half and putting his body on the line to block Terrapins guard Logan Aronhalt at the rim, before landing hard on the court and picking up a foul.
His consistency, meanwhile, brings stability to a locker room that features nine underclassmen. Harris has been the Cavaliers’ leading scorer 16 times and finished with 12 or more points in all but three games this season. The attention he draws has become a boon for his teammates.
“When you don’t have as good a defender on yourself because the best defender is on Joe, it gives us an opportunity to score,” said guard Paul Jesperson, who has made 6 of 7 three-pointers the past two games. “Spread-out scoring, I think that’s helping our offense a lot.”
When asked last month, Evans said that freshman Evan Nolte, not Harris, was the Cavaliers’ best shooter. Now, though, the answer was fairly obvious to him.
“I take that back,” Evans said with a laugh on Tuesday. “Joe’s the best shooter on the team.”