By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa’s new men’s basketball coach didn’t finish putting his staff together until the second week of April, by which time many of the top prospects in the Class of 2010 had committed to other schools.
Undeterred, Tony Bennett and his assistants — Ritchie McKay, Ron Sanchez and Jason Williford — went out and landed one of the nation’s most highly regarded recruiting classes.
Five players, all 12th-graders, signed this week with UVa: 6-4, 205-pound guard K.T. Harrell of Montgomery, Ala.; 6-6, 205-pound guard Joe Harris of Chelan, Wash.; 6-9, 220-pound post player James Johnson of Wildomar, Calif.; 6-7, 215-pound combo forward Akil Mitchell of Charlotte, N.C.; and 6-8, 220-pound power forward Will Regan of Williamsville, N.Y.
“As a whole, real solid,” Bennett said Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena, where his team opens the season Friday night against Longwood.
“To get this job in April and really be behind in recruiting with the 2010 class, and then to be able to get involved with players of their caliber and their character speaks volumes about what the University of Virginia has to offer. We’re very thankful to be able to sign this class. It embodies a lot of what we want this program to be about, and it’ll be an addition to what’s here, and then we’ve got to keep adding on to it.”
Rivals.com ranks the class 11th nationally. Scout.com has it at No. 14. Harrell is ranked No. 35 in the Class of 2010 by Rivals, and Johnson, Harris and Regan are Nos. 99, 114 and 143, respectively.
“I don’t get too caught up in the rankings,” Bennett said. “You can’t pay too much attention to preseason polls or with rankings of teams or recruiting rankings, because the proof will be in the pudding how they develop. But if some people respect the players, it’s not a bad thing. It’s good to know some people acknowledge that there are some good players in this class.”
Bennett took a few minutes after practice Thursday to discuss each of his latest recruits, in the order they committed:
* Regan: “He’s really excited about coming and trying to start something new and being part of building up a program,” Bennettt said. “It’s similar to what we’ve tried to sell whenever we’ve gone [to a new school]. You sell that vision of, ‘Look, you’re going to be the first recruiting class of this staff’s.’
“Will’s a physical, cerebral, intense player. He’s played some 5, he’s played some 4. I called him a glue guy. He’s a heady player, but very physical. He plays with extreme effort and knows his game, understands his game.”
Regan attends Nichols School in Buffalo, whose graduates include Christian Laettner. Regan chose Virginia over such schools as Providence, Maryland, Stanford and Arizona State.
In 2008-09, Regan became only the seventh 11th-grader to be named player of the year in western New York. Others who have been so honored include Laettner and former Syracuse star Jonny Flynn.
* Harris: “We had been recruiting Joe Harris at Washington State, so I aware of him,” Bennett said. “He came to [UVa’s elite] camp, and I think he was floored when he saw the Grounds, saw the facilities and learned more about what Virginia was about. And then there was the lure of the ACC. And the relationship we had built was positive.
“Joe’s a very complete, skilled guard. He’s up to 6-6, over 200 pounds now, so he has some good size. Very good shooter. Plays some point guard in high school, at a smaller level, but he’s a complete guard, which we like to have.
“Being a coach’s son, he comes from a basketball background, and he just is real excited about this opportunity as well.”
Harris chose UVa over Washington State and San Diego
* Harrell: “K.T. is a very complete guard as well,” Bennett said. “He’s a very talented, explosive, strong, athletic guy who’s complete, though. Again, he’s a multiple-position guard. Like the others, he has tremendous character.
“And when you talk about a leap of faith, he committed without seeing JPJ or seeing the University. He just felt a connection with the staff and, again, was excited about the ACC and really bought into that vision of, ‘Yeah, I want to come and try and help bring Virginia back to respectability.’
“He’s a tough, physical player who plays both ends of the floor and is unselfish. All of them are unselfish players.”
Harrell turned down such schools as Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State.
* Johnson: “He’s an athletic, long, bouncy, rugged player who, as his skill level improves and he polishes up his game, could be very dangerous,” Bennett said. “But he’s a relentless player and a lively player.
“And he’s so hungry to improve. He has a burning desire, like every one of these guys, to be a better player.” Bennett added with a smile: “He says he’s taller than 6-9 now, but I don’t know.”
The big redhead, whose sister attends Liberty University, picked UVa over Arizona and California. Like Harrell, Johnson was unable to play high school hoops as an 11th-grader because of local transfer rules.
* Mitchell: “Real young for his grade,” Bennett said. “Excellent student with excellent character. A nice athlete who’s very multi-dimensional. Skilled player in terms of he can shoot the 3, put it on the floor, guard people. Complete player.
“Can play the 4, probably can play some 3. He’s real hungry for this opportunity. He just wants the chance. And if the wires connect on him, I think he will surprise people.”
Mitchell, who won’t turn 18 until June, attends Charlotte Christian School, whose graduates include brothers Seth and Stephen Curry. Mitchell also considered George Washington and SMU before committing to UVa.
Bennett’s closing thoughts on his first class?
“I’m just real thankful for it. It’s not easy when you have five scholarships right out of the blocks. It can be difficult to get inroads into kids, and I think we were fortunate in the fact that, for example, K.T. and James both didn’t play high school basketball their junior year and were sort of under the radar and came onto the scene late. Had they played and been on the AAU circuit the year before, I don’t think we would have been in the same position.
“But again, we just happened to fall into those situations where we saw them, people told us about them and then we followed up and pursued hard. And if you can get someone to see what this place has to offer, you’re going to have a chance if you get them here.”