HANK KURZ Jr., AP Sports Writer
Joe Harris’ senior season at Virginia has been something of a love-fest.
A first-team All-ACC selection as a junior, Harris was a third-team choice this year, a season when he assumed a lesser role in Virginia’s offense, but a greater role in the Cavaliers’ sense of togetherness.
With the Cavaliers having their best season in decades, and heading into a final 16 matchup against Michigan State on Friday night at Madison Square Garden, the signs of affection keep appearing.
“Joe, pass me the rock,” read a large orange sign displayed by a young lady at a Cavaliers’ home game this season. On it was a drawing of a diamond ring, causing the clean-cut Harris to laugh. And blush.
“I mean, it was a creative sign. It looked good,” he said, somewhat sheepishly.
Another woman arrived at the NCAA tournament displaying a sign asking Harris to the prom, and when the Cavaliers were beating Memphis 78-60 on Sunday night to earn their first trip to the Sweet 16 since the 1995 team reached the regional finals, a man held a sign professing his “man crush” on Harris.
In some respects, the man could have been coach Tony Bennett, who recruited the Chelan, Wash., native when he was at Washington State and convinced him to come try to make history when he took the Virginia job in 2009.
“He said that this is a place that’s dying to be a basketball school. People here are just waiting for this team to get good and they have some history and it was something that he could establish on his own,” Harris recalled. “It’s very enticing to a young kid to tell him, ‘You could be the start of changing the program around and be the foundation to what Virginia basketball could be in the future.'”
In four years, Harris has become such a Bennett disciple that he often uses the same words to explain what happened in games, a tendency that teammates have picked up on, and like having some fun with.
“Guys make fun of me quite a bit, saying that I’m like his son and stuff like that. They always joke around because we have the same barber so we have a similar haircut,” Harris said, laughing. It was worse last season, before Paul Jesperson transferred, Harris said, because Jesperson gave him the most grief.
“He gave me this nickname, Jebediah, saying I was like the chosen child to coach Bennett,” he said.
The similarities, at times, are uncanny.
Like Bennett, Harris is rarely demonstrative on the court, but while the Cavaliers rely on others for an injection of energy and fire, it was Harris who made perhaps the biggest call off the season.
It came on New Year’s Eve, a day after Virginia was embarrassed 87-52 at Tennessee. Harris went to Bennett’s office wanting to talk, and when he learned the coach was at home, that was Harris’ next stop.
“I just told him … I felt like we had underachieved up to this point in the season and I had higher expectations and I had envisioned the season going differently,” Harris said of the meeting.
In the days that followed, players talked and things changed. Harris and Mitchell recognized that their roles needed to be more based on what they had to offer to a deeper roster this year than on what they had been expected to do a year earlier. The Cavaliers have won 21 of 23 games since, including their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title in 38 years.
Bennett, who used Harris as a decoy in a tie game against Pittsburgh, freeing up Malcolm Brogdon for a game-winning shot at the buzzer, said the senior knows there are times he needs to be more aggressive.
Harris was voted the most outstanding player of the ACC tournament, and has led them in scoring in three of five postseason games, including a 16-point effort in the victory against Memphis
He’s averaging 14.8 points in the postseason, up from 11.7 before that, to lead the team.
“I think one of Joe’s strengths is he is unselfish, and we’ve talked about that, but I don’t worry about him too much because he does seem to have a feel when to be assertive and look for stuff and when to let it come,” Bennett said. “I think Joe’s feel is good. He needs to be aggressive, but with soundness.”
It’s something Harris couldn’t have said better himself.
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