CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia senior Akil Mitchell meant for it to be a practical joke, not national news.
But following a home win over Maryland last month, Mitchell decided to tell a few reporters about fellow senior Joe Harris’s favorite entertainer: Katy Perry. He cranks the volume up in the car and sings along, Mitchell said, just another example of how “weird” his friend and teammate can be.
Two days later, the headline on USA Today’s Web site — “Virginia’s Joe Harris is the most die-hard Katy Perry fan” — sent Harris searching for Mitchell. The senior didn’t like this sort of attention, even if Mitchell’s comments weren’t all that inaccurate.
“That was blown out of proportion. That was Akil. He said, ‘I blast it in my car all the time,’ which is not true,” Harris said with a sheepish smile this week. “I am a Katy Perry fan — I did go to her movie — but not as much as Akil blew it up to be.”
If Harris had his choice, he would always “float under the radar,” content to be in the background. It’s how the Chelan, Wash., native has been since he can remember and is why he has enjoyed this season more than last year, when he led Virginia in scoring and earned first-team all-ACC honors.
With more weapons around, Harris passed up more shots and took on a more complementary role as the Cavaliers racked up win after win. Though his minutes and scoring dropped and he had to settle for third-team all-ACC status this year, the approach paved the way for Virginia’s first outright ACC regular season title since 1981.
“I think everybody else sees the leading scorer and this guy with all the preseason accolades buy in, and they’re able to do the same thing and play with a similar mind-set,” Harris said.
This, though, is part of the dilemma Harris will be forced to confront when top-seeded Virginia faces No. 9 seed Florida State on Friday in an ACC tournament quarterfinal at Greensboro Coliseum.
The Cavaliers are only playing for seeding in the NCAA tournament at this point, but the program has had little success in the postseason of late. Nobody on Virginia’s roster has won a game in the NCAA or ACC tournaments. Coach Tony Bennett hasn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament and only one game in the ACC tournament since he arrived in Charlottesville in 2009.
How far they go this time around could depend on Harris, who may have grown too comfortable allowing others to take hold of the spotlight this season. Sometimes a situation demands a star.
“Joe has to be assertive. That’s important for us,” Bennett said this week. “The one thing that people don’t always see, even though we have more weapons, more balance, he still is the focal point of most all defenses. They really tag him. They shade towards him. They don’t want to let him get going.”
Recently, opponents have been succeeding. Harris, who is averaging 11.4 points per game (down from 16.3 last season), has shot just 31 percent over the past six contests. He hasn’t connected on better than 50 percent of his field goals since a Jan. 18 win over Florida State.
It’s the same sort of late-season shooting swoon Harris went through a year ago when the Cavaliers narrowly missed the NCAA tournament.
But he has shown a penchant for hitting timely three-pointers this season, often giving Virginia the lead in the second half because he refuses to think about his shooting woes.
“That’s when you’re going to be a problem,” Harris said.
Bennett believes his co-captain’s role-player mentality will serve him well next year in the professional ranks, and Harris remains an underrated defender and passer. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski even called him “a coach’s dream” earlier this season.
“To me, if they don’t have him, they don’t win a championship,” Boston College Coach Steve Donahue said recently. “Many players would have handled it a lot different. For scoring to go down like that, and not only has he handled it, he’s embraced it and made his team better.”
But in Charlottesville, a town that had been starved for a winner on the hardwood, he simply can’t slip into the shadows. Not after Seventeen magazine named him one of the “25 hottest guys” in college sports, a distinction his teammates don’t hesitate to remind him about.
Center Mike Tobey, who shares an apartment with Harris and sophomore Evan Nolte near campus, likes to tell the story about the first time he roomed on the road with Harris this season. In the middle of the night, Harris suddenly sat up in bed and began mumbling to himself.
A “freaked-out” Tobey began asking, “What are you saying? Are you all right? Do you need some water,” and got no answer. He then confronted Harris in the morning.
It turns out Harris has been known to sleepwalk and talk in his sleep since childhood. He just opted to keep that detail to himself.
“He definitely doesn’t like the attention,” Tobey said with a laugh. “It’s funny because he is kind of a big deal.”