The ear-to-ear grin on Virginia Coach Tony Bennett’s face rarely disappeared last Wednesday, the result of a stunning victory in Bennett’s homecoming to Wisconsin. His postgame news conference revolved around his memories as a Badgers assistant until a reporter asked Bennett about the play of junior guard Joe Harris, who had led all scorers with 22 points.
Bennett’s mind then drifted back to the recruiting pitch that could define this season.
“Joe took a step of faith to come to Virginia,” he said. “I was recruiting him at Washington State and I said, ‘We’re trying to start something at Virginia.’ And it’s so rewarding to see him have that kind of game.”
The 6-foot-6 Harris has stepped into the go-to scoring role Mike Scott occupied for Virginia last season, and so far the returns have been encouraging. He’s averaging a team-high 16.5 points per game while shooting a career-high 46 percent heading into the Cavaliers’ latest nonconference test against Tennessee (4-2) on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
What distinguishes Harris, along with forward Akil Mitchell, is that they are the only two players remaining from Bennett’s initial recruiting class. Not coincidentally, they are the Cavs’ two top scorers, with Harris averaging 16.5 points and Mitchell 12.6.
Coming to Charlottesville was far from a given for Harris, who mostly considered schools in the Pacific Northwest during the recruiting process. He grew up in Chelan, Wash., just like his father. Harris’s mother, Alice, spent her childhood seven miles down the road and had eight brothers and sisters who all lived in the area as well.
Joe Harris had been enamored with Bennett during his time with Washington State and was leaning toward picking the Cougars until Bennett accepted the job at Virginia in March 2009. He then got a phone call from Bennett with a simple message: “If you want to go for it, come across the country.”
Harris eventually was convinced that his desire to play for Bennett — “There’s not many people as genuine as he is,” Harris noted — was enough to overcome any concerns about playing his college basketball on the East Coast.
But getting comfortable in his new surroundings was a challenge. He arrived on campus a day after graduating from high school and was “thrown into the fire” with daily workouts and college classes. There was also an adjustment period on the court, where Harris had to learn how to play second fiddle to older players his first two years.
“I just kind of took what I got, so over the course of games, I didn’t try to create or force anything, or really step on anybody’s toes,” said Harris, who was still Virginia’s second-leading scorer last season.
This season, Harris has been asked to shoulder more of a load. He began the season by proving himself to be a capable point guard with freshman Teven Jones suspended for violating team rules and senior Jontel Evans on the mend from offseason foot surgery.
But with both back in the fold now, Harris has returned to his role as a dynamic scorer and Bennett has given him more freedom. He has taken 100 shots through eight games, 45 more than anyone else on the team.
“I knew I had to be a lot more aggressive and assertive offensively if we were gonna have success with all the youth we had coming in,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t say I was less timid my first couple years. My mind-set is just a little different. I have to take on that role of being the first option offensively.”
He did just that at Wisconsin last week, connecting on several shots early as the Cavaliers got their bearings in a hostile environment and then delivering late. Not known for being demonstrative on court, he emphatically smacked the floor in celebration after a clutch three-point play down the stretch and then immediately sought out Bennett after a defensive stand on Wisconsin’s final possession.
The two then embraced in a hug near the sideline, the latest example of the bond that might take the Cavaliers far this season.
“It’s a little bit more of an emotional game for him,” Harris said moments later. “We were playing with a little more fire because of the emotional circumstances. We really wanted this one.”