There to evaluate players from both teams, he asked out loud about just one prospect before tip-off: “What’s wrong with Joe Harris?”
On the surface, it’s a valid question, particularly since the Cavaliers (12-4, 3-0 ACC) take on No. 16 Duke (12-4, 1-2) on Monday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a chance to start conference play 4-0 for the first time since 1995-96.
The last time Virginia faced the Blue Devils, on Feb. 28 at John Paul Jones Arena, Harris had the best performance of his career. He scored 36 points in a 73-68 upset of a team then ranked No. 3. The outburst propelled him to first team all-ACC honors.
Harris, a senior, was the lone returning all-ACC player to land on the preseason all-ACC team in October.
But in the 23 games since the win over Duke, Harris has registered 20 or more points just once.
This season, his scoring has dropped to 10.7 points per game; it’s more than five fewer than last year, though he does lead the team in scoring. His production at the free throw line and as a rebounder also have declined.
The understated Harris claims to feel no pressure to live up to the standard he set a year ago now that his last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium has arrived. All he remembers from last season are the struggles that followed.
“I don’t really think about it a whole lot, to be honest. We played well, but we didn’t finish the year well. That’s what sits in my mind,” said Harris, who shot just 36 percent from the field over the final seven games of 2012-13.
“I didn’t care about how that game might’ve gone. It was an unbelievable win for our program, and it was a lot of fun for the fans that were a part of it, but . . . the fact that we beat Duke didn’t mean anything because we didn’t make it to the [NCAA] tournament.”
This year’s numbers, though, fail to account for Harris’s efficiency playing in a lineup that is deeper and armed with more talent than a year ago.
The 6-foot-6 Chelan, Wash., native is playing six fewer minutes and attempting four fewer shots per game. He’s shooting a career-high 48.7 percent from the floor following Virginia’s 76-45 win over North Carolina State.
“I feel like offensively things are clicking a little bit better, but I think that’s in large part due to the changes we made offensively,” Harris said. “The way that I have success offensively is if I’m able to move without the ball and get guys that are chasing me. I didn’t really do a good enough job of that before.”
But life on the basketball court also changed forever for Harris after his 2013 Duke performance. It was the most points any player scored during an ACC regular season game last year and cemented him as one of the league’s stars. It also meant he became the focus of every team’s scouting report, and Coach Tony Bennett said Harris doesn’t get enough credit for how much room that attention creates for his teammates.
Bennett also credits Virginia’s recent surge to the approach taken by Harris and fellow senior Akil Mitchell. Harris has shot 50 percent from the field after returning from a concussion suffered at Florida State last week, and Mitchell is averaging 8.7 points and 10.7 rebounds since the Cavaliers lost at Tennessee, 87-52, on Dec. 30.
“It’s their team, it’s their time and it’s time for them to lead,” Bennett said. “I’ve seen them take more ownership in this last stretch and the others are following, and obviously we’ve had some good results.”
That sentiment was on full display at the end of the first half Saturday, a sequence Mitchell capped off with a windmill jam.
Over the course of six possessions, Harris knocked down a deep three-pointer as the shot clock expired, drew two fouls and hit four consecutive free throws, and created two turnovers on the defensive end en route to holding North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren, the ACC’s leading scorer, to four points on 1-for-9 shooting.
In that moment, nothing seemed to be wrong with him.
“If that’s all I did,” Harris said about his scoring, “I don’t think I’d be doing a very good job on this team or helping this team out. There’s so much more responsibility being a senior in a program like this.”