By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In its three games this season at 17,000-seat KeyArena, the Seattle University men’s basketball team has averaged 3,272 fans.
If the crowd is larger than usual for the Redhawks’ game there Wednesday night, UVa sophomore Joe Harris may deserve some of the credit. Seattle is a three-hour drive from Harris’ hometown, but that may be as close as he ever gets to Chelan, Wash., for one of his college games. So the 6-6 swingman has no complaints about Virginia’s upcoming road trip.
“I’m really excited to head back and just get the chance to play in front of all my family and friends,” Harris said after a recent practice at John Paul Jones Arena.
The Cavaliers (8-1), who have yet to play a true road game this season, leave Friday for the Pacific Northwest. Virginia plays Sunday at Oregon (6-2). Three nights later, UVa will take on Seattle (2-6) at KeyArena.
Harris expects his mother to be at the Oregon game, as well as several other relatives, but work obligations will keep his father from attending. The elder Harris, also named Joe, is head coach at Chelan High School, where his son starred.
The Seattle game will be another matter. Harris’ cheering section at KeyArena will include his parents and his three sisters, along with many others with ties to the family.
“I’ve heard a lot of people have gotten tickets already,” Harris said.
So what’s a kid from Chelan doing on the other side of the country, at a school more than 2,600 miles from his hometown? The attraction, first and foremost, was Tony Bennett, who’s in his third season as UVa’s coach.
Before coming to Virginia, Bennett spent six seasons at Washington State, the final three as head coach, and that’s where he first heard about a promising young player in Chelan named Joe Harris.
“I got a letter from someone who sent me a newspaper clipping — I wish I could remember who — and said, ‘This is a young man that you’re going to want to take a look at. He’s a coach’s son. He’s from a remote area but sounds like the kind of player you would like,’ ” Bennett recalled.
Harris was probably in the ninth or 10th grade then, Bennett said, and “I remember I got that article and said to my staff, ‘Hey, here’s a guy in the state, let’s take a shot.’ That was the initial introduction I had to him, from a Washington State alum or fan. I feel bad that I can’t remember who it was. I’m sure there’s probably 30 people that are claiming they sent me that letter. And then one of my assistants [at WSU] really liked him a lot. Ben Johnson saw Joe and thought he was a heck of a player.”
After the 2008-09 season, Bennett left Pullman for Charlottesville, where he intensified his pursuit of Harris. In August 2009, Harris committed to UVa, and he enrolled there about a year later.
Chelan is a small high school, and Harris didn’t regularly face elite competition during his career with the Goats. But he played AAU ball for a strong Seattle-based program — Friends of Hoop — and that experience accelerated his adjustment to Division I basketball. So did his pedigree as a coach’s son who grew up around the game.
Ultimately, though, a “lot of it’s what’s inside a player,” said Bennett, a coach’s son himself.
“Joe adapted pretty quick. I remember the first couple practices, when we did some one-on-one stuff, and he had never seen quickness like Mustapha [Farrakhan’s]. I remember he could barely get the ball out of his hands to get a shot off before Mustapha was blocking that thing. Maybe it would leave his hand, go six inches off his hand, and then: Boom! And then he’s trying to guard Mustapha, and Mustapha’s giving him windburn going by him so quick.
“But all good players, they adapt and they adjust and they figure out ways to use their strength. When you see guys adjust and be able to take their game and make it work, then you know you’ve got a real solid one, and Joe did that at a pretty early stage.”
By the third game of his freshman season, Harris was a starter, and he scored 12 points that night at Stanford. Four days later, at the Maui Invitational, he had 19 points against Washington, and then he scored 24 in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge victory at Minnesota.
Injuries to Mike Scott and Will Sherrill forced Harris to play out of position at power forward for long stretches in 2010-11, but he still finished the season as the Cavaliers’ third-leading scorer (10.4 ppg).
In his second season, he’s second on the team in scoring, at 12.4 ppg, and he’s showing there’s more to his game than a deadly 3-point shot. Harris has made more 2-point field goals (22) than 3-pointers (13) this season, and he’s shooting 90.6 from the line. He’s even dunked twice, showing off athleticism honed in workouts with strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis.
“Certainly he’s a year older, more mature physically, and he really worked,” Bennett said. “He played point guard for his dad in high school a lot, and so he does have some ball skills where he can put it on the floor, but he did really work hard this offseason on a pull-up, on trying to get into the lane and make some plays.”
Harris said: “Coach gave us that list at the end of last season with things that we needed to work on, and on my list it had being able to get in the lane and finish, and hitting floaters, just finishing at the basket. So it was something I really focused on in the offseason.”
During his first year at UVa, Harris said, he returned to Chelan for fall break, but “that was it. And then once school got out in May I went home.”
Harris made it back to Chelan for fall break again this semester, and then he saw his parents in the U.S. Virgin Islands when the Wahoos played in the Paradise Jam on St. Thomas last month.
Did he get homesick after enrolling at UVa? “Definitely,” Harris said. “Everybody goes through that, though. I know every freshman has the homesick woes, even if you’re not playing a sport. It happens to all of us.”
That’s one reason why Bennett, like many coaches, tries to schedule games near the hometowns of his players whose families live far from the school. Bennett said he signed off on UVa’s series with Oregon and Seattle — each of which visited JPJ last season — partly because of Harris’ roots in the Pacific Northwest.
Bennett still has friends in that part of the country, as does Ritchie McKay, UVa’s associate head coach. McKay’s wife, Julie, is from Seattle, and the family visits the city regularly. McKay is a graduate of Seattle Pacific and is a former assistant coach at his alma mater and at the University of Washington.
In the end, though, the trip “isn’t a homecoming, really,” Bennett said. “It’s nice that Joe’s going to get to play in front of some of his family and friends, but this is an opportunity to take your team on the road and play a team” — Oregon — “that’s projected high in its league and know that we’ll have to play well to have a chance to win.”