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Oct. 17, 2012

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As a once-robust recruiting class steadily shrunk, losing Billy Baron and then Will Regan and, finally, KT Harrell and James Johnson, UVa basketball fans might have wondered occasionally if Joe Harris would remain in Tony Bennett’s program for four years.

Charlottesville, after all, is some 2,600 miles from Harris’ picturesque hometown of Chelan, Wash., and he comes from a close-knit family.

Not to worry. Unlike his classmates who transferred, Harris was a full-time starter for the Cavaliers. But even if he’d been a reserve, the 6-6 junior said Wednesday, he wasn’t going anywhere.

“I was going to be homesick either way, and there is no way my parents would ever let me leave,” Harris said. “They knew that playing for Coach Bennett and going to a school like Virginia was the best thing for me. Regardless of how basketball was going, my parents are pretty big on me getting my education and sticking to my commitment.”

The ACC held its annual media gathering for men’s basketball Wednesday, and each school was asked to send its head coach and two players. Bennett and Harris represented Virginia. Senior point guard Jontel Evans was a late scratch, staying behind in Charlottesville to rehabilitate the foot on which he had surgery Oct. 2.

“I wish Jontel was here to help me answer some of these questions,” Harris said with a smile.

In both the coaches’ and the media’s preseason polls, UVa was picked to finish seventh in the 12-team ACC. Bennett hopes the Wahoos fare better than that this season — “Of course I do,” he said — but no matter what happens, he’s optimistic about his program’s long-term prospects.

“I like what’s in place,” Bennett said. “Whether it comes to fruition this year or next year, we’re in a good place.”

From a team that finished 22-10 and advanced to the NCAA tournament, Harris is the top returning scorer (11.3 ppg). He’s also one of only three upperclassmen on scholarship at UVa, along with Evans and junior forward Akil Mitchell, the team’s other returning starters.

“It feels like just the other day I was getting to school,” Harris said. “But you gotta step up and embrace the leadership role that you have [put] upon you. The coaches really challenge you. They challenge me and Akil and Jontel to really step up and be the leaders of this team, being the upperclassmen, and having the young group of guys that we have, it’s huge for us to try and help them on the court as much as possible, and then off the court also.”

Had he not broken his non-shooting hand in a Feb. 11 loss at North Carolina, Harris might well have been named to one of the All-ACC teams in 2011-12. He played Virginia’s final eight games with a cast partially covering his left hand. Harris’ ability to play through pain impressed Bennett, but the injury limited his effectiveness, especially from 3-point range.

Healthy again, Harris led the `Hoos in scoring during their August trip to Europe, where he averaged 15.6 points in five games. And now, on the eve of his junior season, he knows his role on the team has changed from 2011-12. All-ACC forward Mike Scott, who led Virginia in scoring and rebounding last season, is now an Atlanta Hawk, and center Assane Sene and guard Sammy Zeglinski are gone as well.

“I guess my time is now,” Harris said.

“Obviously Mike was a huge part of our team last year. Our offense really flowed through him, and I think on that end of things, I gotta take it upon myself to be a lot more aggressive. I feel like the first couple years of my career, I kind of played off of guys, I didn’t really try and force the issue with anything, I wasn’t as aggressive as maybe I could have been.”

Harris’ versatility is one of his many attributes on the court. He’s played shooting guard, small forward and power forward as a Cavalier, and he’s been running the point at times in practice this month while Evans and sophomore Malcolm Brogdon (foot) recover from their respective injuries.

“I played point guard in high school at times, so I’m comfortable with it,” Harris said.

At Chelan High, a small school that had about 400 students, Harris played three sports (football, basketball and baseball) as a freshman and sophomore. He concentrated on basketball and football as a junior — Harris was the Goats’ starting quarterback — and then focused solely on hoops as a senior.

Harris’ basketball coach was his father, also named Joe, who was a big fan of the Bennetts at Washington State. Dick Bennett coached the Cougars for three seasons before turning the program over to his son, Tony, a former NBA guard who after getting the head job started pursuing the younger Harris. And so when Bennett left for UVa after the 2008-09 season, Harris was intrigued.

“We built that Washington State program, so he watched that and there was some credibility there,” Bennett recalled Wednesday. “He knew what I was about. It wasn’t, `Who’s this guy?’ So all that stuff helped.”

Harris played AAU ball for a Seattle-based program, Friends of Hoop, whose alumni include NBA players Spencer Hawes, Jamal Crawford, Martell Webster and Nate Robinson. As a 12th-grader, Harris was named his state’s Mr. Basketball, but he didn’t face great competition in high school, and some recruiting analysts questioned whether he’d be able to thrive at the highest level of college hoops.

Bennett did not share those doubts. He invited Harris to attend a camp at UVa, and Harris took a red-eye flight to Virginia in June 2009. About six weeks later, he committed to the Cavaliers.

“I would have played for Coach Bennett wherever he ended up,” Harris said Wednesday.

Harris is “the mayor in Lake Chelan, he’s a hometown hero,” said Bennett, who still marvels at Harris’ willingness to cross the country to play for a program that was then one of the ACC’s weakest.

“He kind of said, `Let’s forge and do this together. Let’s try to build this thing together, kind of coming from the same neck of the woods,’ ” Bennett said.

As a result, Bennett said, a “special bond” connects player and coach, “and I think he’s going to cash in on that. He’s going to reap some benefits from that in his next two years, from an individual standpoint and, I hope, have some team success as we improve.”

Harris was part of Bennett’s first full recruiting class at UVa, along with Baron, Regan, Harrell, Johnson and Mitchell. By the start of last season, Baron and Regan were gone, and Harrell and Johnson left in late December after the team returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest.

“It was kind of a crazy deal,” Harris said of the attrition, “just because we all came in together and we thought we would all make it through together. But I guess sometimes it doesn’t work out like you planned.”

Much has changed for Harris since he enrolled at the University in June 2010, and not only because of his friends’ departures. Back then, he carried only 195 pounds on his 6-6 frame.

“I wouldn’t call him a 195-pound weakling, but he wasn’t as strong as he probably needed to be to really compete at this level,” Mike Curtis, Virginia’s strength-and-conditioning coach for basketball, said Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena.

“But to Joe’s credit, he’s a warrior. He’s dedicated to trying to prepare himself physically, and over the course of these two years, he gained lean mass and functional weight, muscle, and he topped out this summer about 223.

“It’s pretty impressive to come in and gain almost 30 pounds over the course of that time and have it be all solid muscle. Because he’s still probably somewhere around 5- to 8-percent body fat, which is pretty impressive. But that has helped him be a little bit more explosive, be a little bit more physical and embrace that part of his game, which has been good to see.”

Harris now weighs about 220, and Curtis would like him to stay in that range throughout the season, to better handle the heavy load he’ll have to carry on a young team.

As a freshman, Harris started 25 games and averaged 10.4 points for a team that finished 16-15. More than half of his field goals that season came from beyond the 3-point arc. As a sophomore, Harris diversified his game, scoring more in the lane and around the basket.

“He’s been a kid who’s probably our hardest worker,” Curtis said. “He’s quiet, but he leads us through us his actions, whether it be on the court or in the weight room. But his work and his effort have been tremendous the last two years.”

Bennett played for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay. As a freshman there, Bennett averaged a team-high 19.1 points and attempted 107 treys.

“I jacked `em up from Day One,” he said, laughing.

Harris, by contrast, played a supporting role as a freshman. Expected to produce more in 2011-12, he delivered, despite his broken hand.

“Joe’s unselfish,” Bennett said. “I think he’ll do what’s required.”

And if that means being asked to pass up shots to concentrate on defense, or to play center, or play power forward, “he’ll do it,” Bennett said. “So my hope is when we say, `You gotta be assertive,’ he’ll do that.”

Bennett would expect nothing less from No. 12.

“He wants to win desperately,” Bennett said. “He has zero ego. He’s about making this program [better]. That’s what he wants. And he’s tough. So that’s what I like about him.”

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