Oct. 12, 2011

By Jeff White

CHARLOTTESVILLE — With his parents and brother in the stands at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum, KT Harrell desperately wanted to play well on Feb. 23, to lift his team as he so often had during the first half of his first season at UVa.

The night ended on a positive note for the Cavaliers, who rallied to win 62-56 and complete their regular-season sweep of the Yellow Jackets. But Harrell, a 6-4 guard from Montgomery, Ala., about 160 miles from Atlanta, was ineffective, as he had been for most of the previous seven games. He played only six minutes against the Jackets and missed the one shot he attempted.

“It definitely hurt a little bit,” Harrell recalled last week at John Paul Jones Arena. “My family came in, and I wasn’t able to play the way I wanted to play. But I think this year will be a lot different.”

Harrell, who as a senior at Brewbaker Tech Magnet High in Montgomery was named Alabama’s Class 4A player of the year, started 15 of Virginia’s first 21 games in 2010-11. But his freshman season turned dramatically in late January, and Harrell dropped out of the starting lineup for the Wahoos’ final 10 games, replaced by Sammy Zeglinski.

After scoring at least 10 points in 11 of his first 19 games, Harrell failed to reach double figures in any of the last 12. Opponents were ready for his preferred weapon — a midrange jump shot off the dribble — and nothing seemed to come easily late in the season for Harrell, who had scored 20 points against Oregon, 17 against Georgia Tech (at JPJ), 16 against Seattle and 15 against LSU.

“Teams definitely did a good job with their scouting reports, seeing my tendencies and seeing what I liked to do on the court,” Harrell said. “They definitely did a good job of sort of controlling how I played, and I give credit to the defenses of the ACC. But I think I also hit a wall. I hit a point where I was just exhausted. I didn’t feel at that time like practicing, because I was just so tired. I also wasn’t managing my food very well. I was eating late at night. So I think all those things were big reasons.”

He finished the season with averages of 8.0 points and 2.1 rebounds. Harrell shot 42.3 percent from the floor, 42.1 percent from 3-point range and 64.2 percent from the line.

Those were solid numbers, but Harrell — and UVa’s coaching staff — knew he could do more. As the team headed into the offseason, the coaches asked Harrell, who played at a thickly muscled 207 pounds last season, to become leaner, which in turn would make him quicker.

Harrell embraced the challenge. He’s down to 198 pounds, and that has “definitely affected how I play and how much quicker I am and how much more athletic I am,” Harrell said.

“I wasn’t fat. I felt like I was a little too bulky, though.”

To drop the weight, Harrell said, “I did a lot of running and working out. The biggest thing was just managing what I ate. Not a whole bunch of snacking.”

Fast food? Forget it. “I can’t mess with McDonald’s,” Harrell said, smiling. “I can’t even drive by.”

Practice officially starts at 5 p.m. Friday for third-year coach Tony Bennett’s team, which opens the season Nov. 13 against South Carolina State at JPJ. Harrell is the projected starter at shooting guard, and “I’ve worked on trying to be the most complete player I can for the team,” he said.

“I don’t want to just be able to rely on my midrange jump shot. Of course that’s my go-to shot, and I have developed certain moves to create space to get my midrange shot off, but I want to be able to get to the rack and draw defenders so I can hit my teammates and get them good looks. I want to be as complete as I can. I want to be the best all-around player I can be for this team.”

Bennett likes what he’s seen from No. 24 this fall.

“KT gets to the elbow, and he’s got that pull-up, which is such a weapon,” Bennett said. “He really worked on continuing to develop his strengths [while] improving his ball handling and overall athleticism, in terms of sliding and trying to get places on the court. I think that will help him, because when people pressed up on him [last season], maybe it was more of a confidence thing, but he had to be able to go places a little better with the ball, and he certainly worked on that with his mobility.”

Harrell closed his first college season with a strong performance in the ACC tournament, scoring nine points against Miami on 4-for-8 shooting from the floor.

Seven months later, he’s ready to contribute more. Harrell says he’s much more comfortable than at this time last fall.

“Having that experience is such a big deal,” Harrell said. “I think last year I was just so excited to be in the ACC that I didn’t understand how competitive it was. And now that I’ve been through a year and I understand the competitiveness and the talent level of the ACC, it’ll be a lot easier.”

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