Feb. 22, 2011

By Jeff White

ATLANTA — This sprawling city is as close to home as UVa freshman KT Harrell figures to get for an ACC basketball game. For the 6-4, 204-pound guard from Montgomery, Ala., that adds meaning to Virginia’s second regular-season meeting with Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets (3-9, 11-15) host the Cavaliers (4-8, 13-13) on Wednesday night, and some of Harrell’s friends from Montgomery are hoping to attend the game. Most special to Harrell, though, were the hugs he exchanged Tuesday night with his parents, Michele and Rodney, and his brother, Damaray. They surprised him by driving up from Montgomery for Virginia’s practice at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

Harrell hasn’t been home to Montgomery since August. He celebrated Christmas in Roanoke, where he has relatives. His parents were with him over the holidays, but they’re not regulars at games at John Paul Jones Arena.

“It’s tough for them to come up here,” Harrell said after practice Monday night at JPJ, “because it’s like a nine-, 10-hour drive, and they’ve got a lot of stuff going on back home.”

Harrell is nearing the end of a season marked by ups and downs, which happens to a lot of freshmen in the ACC. He has started 15 games and averages 8.9 points and 2.3 rebounds. Harrell is shooting 42.6 percent from the floor — 42.9 from 3-point range — and 62.5 from the line.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience for me,” he said. “I don’t get down. I don’t lose any confidence, because I know what kind of player I am and what I can do. At the end of the day I want what’s best for the team. No matter how many minutes I play or how many points I score or how good I look when I’m out there on the court, I just want to make sure I give the effort that is needed to help this team.”

As a senior at Brewbaker Tech Magnet High in Montgomery, Harrell averaged 27.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.6 blocked shots. He was named the Class 4A player of the year in Alabama and entered UVa with as many accolades as any member of second-year coach Tony Bennett’s first full recruiting class.

Armed with an old-school midrange game that seemed to baffle many opponents, Harrell contributed immediately. He started and scored 13 points in UVa’s opener, a win over William and Mary. He had 14 points against Washington, 10 against Wichita State, 20 against Oregon.

The win over Oregon began a stretch during which Harrell led the ‘Hoos in scoring in five of seven games. He later put up 13 points in a loss to Boston College and 17 in a win over Georgia Tech — his high in an ACC game. He struggled in his next two games, though, and when Clemson visited JPJ on Feb. 2, Bennett started junior Sammy Zeglinski in Harrell’s place.

Zeglinski has started the past five games, and he scored 10 points Saturday to help UVa sweep its regular-season series with Virginia Tech. Harrell had 2 points and 3 rebounds in 18 minutes against the Hokies.

“Sometimes as a coach you have to make tough decisions that aren’t favorable for the individual but are best for the team,” said Ritchie McKay, Bennett’s top assistant. “If KT had a personal agenda that was above our team’s, this would really jam him up, but it hasn’t.

“He’s in a little bit of a shooting slump, but attitudinally, he’s the same KT he was when he was playing so well [earlier in the season].”

Harrell hasn’t scored in double figures since the Jan. 22 win over the Yellow Jackets. In the seven games since then, he’s 12 for 45 from the floor.

“I always tell Coach that it doesn’t matter if I’m coming off the bench or starting, but as a player sometimes it’s hard to find your rhythm,” Harrell said. “But that’s just a learning experience. You gotta do other things to try to get yourself in the game. You just can’t come out there and play the same way you would if you were starting. So it’s just been a learning experience. I accept my role. I’m not upset about it. But it is a little challenging coming off the bench.”

Now that opponents have more videotape on Harrell, he knows, their scouting reports on him are more detailed.

“Of course they make adjustments,” he said. “After the first game they say, ‘OK, this is what this guy can do. We want to stop him from doing this or that.’ But I think as a player you’ve just got to adjust when they adjust, and I think that’s what I’m learning and trying to do. When they take certain things away, then I can do other things. And not just score. Help my teammates score, find good looks for my teammates, rebound the ball.”

The biggest challenge he’s faced in the college game?

“The speed,” Harrell said. “The speed is definitely different. And the competitive level of the ACC. It’s a lot different from high school. There are very few guys in high school that are athletic. It’s rare to see that in Alabama. It’s not really a basketball state. That’s the transition I’ve been learning to try to adjust to.”

His coaches haven’t lost confidence in him. Harrell is mature beyond his years, and “that shows up in every arena of his life,” said McKay, UVa’s associate head coach.

“KT Harrell is a special young person, because of the intangibles he brings to our family relative to his person, character, work ethic and how good of a teammate he is. That’s not to say he’s perfect or he doesn’t struggle, but it’s a great compliment to how he’s been raised and how he’s embraced who he is. He’s very comfortable in his skin.”

The deeply religious Harrell’s faith has helped him to keep basketball in perspective and stay on an even keel.

“I always tell people that my confidence is not in myself, it’s in Christ,” he said. “I know that God has something for me, and I don’t get down even if I have a bad game or whatever. At the end of the day, it’s a game. You’re going to have bad games. You’ve just got to keep pushing, trying to get better.”

That goes for his classmates, too. When the season began, UVa had six scholarship freshmen. Billy Baron transferred to Rhode Island early this month, and another first-year player, 6-9 James Johnson, is redshirting, but Bennett’s rotation includes three freshmen: Harrell, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell.

“A lot of fans had expectations of this freshman class, because we were definitely one of the top-ranked freshman classes in the country,” Harrell said. “We knew coming in there was going to be a lot of pressure, and I think we have shown that we are going to be pretty good these next coming years, but it’s not all going to happen in one year. It’s a process, and that’s what we love about it, I think. As freshmen we’ve fallen in love with the process and keep trying to get better.”

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