Sept. 16, 2013
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Little did Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris know in June 2010, when they joined the UVa men’s basketball program as part of a six-man recruiting class, that by Christmas 2011 the other four players would have departed.
That was not what Tony Bennett expected when he signed his first full class, and not what those players envisioned when they would gather that first summer to discuss the group’s potential impact at Virginia.
“We all had the idea that it was brothers to the end,” Mitchell said, “and we were going to come in and change the program around.”
Harris said: “We were all excited to set the foundation for the program with Coach Bennett, and then unfortunately guys had different agendas. But Akil and I stuck it out, and I know we couldn’t imagine being anywhere besides here.”
The goal of the Class of 2014 was to turn the program around, “and in a way we have,” Mitchell said.
In 2010-11, the Wahoos won 16 games, one more than in Bennett’s first season. They improved to 22-10 in 2011-12, with an appearance in the NCAA tournament, and then finished 23-12 last season after advancing to the NIT quarterfinals.
The outlook for this season is promising. Virginia, which starts practice Sept. 27, is a top-25 team in most preseason polls for 2013-14, in no small part because of Harris and Mitchell.
A season ago, the 6-6 Harris led the `Hoos in scoring (16.3 ppg), ranked second in rebounds (4.0 per game) and was named to the All-ACC first team. The 6-8 Mitchell, a third-team All-ACC selection, led UVa in rebounds (8.9 per game) and steals (1.3 per game) and was second in scoring (13.1 ppg).
“I couldn’t be more excited for them heading into their senior year,” Bennett said.
Coming out of Charlotte (N.C.) Christian, Mitchell was a lightly regarded prospect who had been offered a scholarship by only one ACC school: Virginia. Now he’s one of the conference’s best big men.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way,” Mitchell said. “Still have a long way to go, though. We’ve only made one [NCAA] tournament, and I still have a lot of team aspirations I want to get accomplished before I get out of here.”
Harris grew up on the other side of the United States, in Chelan, Wash., and planned to play for Bennett at Washington State. But when Bennett left WSU for UVa in the spring of 2009, Harris decided to follow him to Charlottesville. However homesick Harris might have gotten at times, he never considered leaving the University.
“No question I have a soft spot in my heart for them,” Bennett said, “because they bought into the vision, and they stayed true to it. They didn’t waver when things were tough, and they’re both competitors.
“Usually people who are competitors stand the test of time, and they, in some respects, have reaped what they’ve sown, and the hope is that this year, their last year, they’ll be able to build something special, even bigger and better. And I love that. Of course I do. They were part of that first class, and they really have made the most of their experience up to this point, and that’s saying a lot, because there’s so much to experience at UVa.”
Bennett added: “The student-athlete experience at UVa is the main reason why I came [from Washington State], because it’s more than just basketball. Basketball’s a big huge part of it, and it’s a sweet part as it goes well, and that’s hopefully starting to happen. But there’s so much more in terms of rubbing shoulders with some of the student body, the elite professors, just engaging in the life of the school.”
Mitchell was among about a dozen college players selected to participate the Big Man Skills Academy, led by NBA players Amar’e Stoudemire and Anthony Davis, June 24-26 in Union, N.J. Others included Michigan’s Mitch McGary and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. Mitchell’s performance there earned him an invitation to the LeBron James Skills Academy, held July 5-8 in Las Vegas.
“That was a huge confidence-booster,” Mitchell said.
On the final day in Las Vegas, Mitchell broke his right hand, which limited his participation in the Cavaliers’ workouts the rest of the month at John Paul Jones Arena. Still, he said, it “helped out so much, even after I got hurt, just knowing that I had two good camps against some of the best players in the country. It just gave me an idea of how good I really can be when I really put my mind to it.”
Harris dealt with adversity this summer, too. In late June, a foot injury forced him to withdraw from the training camp for the USA Basketball team that was headed to Russia to compete in the World University Games.
He’s healthy now, though, and so is Mitchell. Since the start of the fall semester, they’ve been training alongside teammates Thomas Rogers, Darion Atkins, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte, Mike Tobey, Justin Anderson, Teven Jones, Caid Kirven, London Perrantes and Devon Hall.
“This is the most talented team that we’ve had since I’ve been here, the deepest team also,” Mitchell said. “Every guy at every position can go and should be ready to play right away. It’ll really just come down to us accepting our roles and being good teammates and us all coming together for one common goal.”
In 2012-13, Harris appeared to wear down physically late in the season, and his production dipped after his 36-point performance in UVa’s Feb. 28 upset of No. 3 Duke at JPJ. As a senior, Harris should not have to shoulder as much responsibility offensively. Gill and Brogdon, neither of whom was available last season, are potential starters, and Perrantes and Hall are well-regarded freshman guards.
“Definitely this is the most depth that we’ve had since I’ve been here, and the most talent,” Harris said.
“Akil had a great summer, and obviously he had a huge year last year too. Guys like Justin and Tobey and Evan, they all really improved, too, and then you add in Malcolm, A.G. and the two incomers. We just have way more depth at every single position this season than we did last year.”
The team’s goals, Mitchell said, include making deep runs in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. “I still haven’t won an ACC tournament game,” he said. “We’ve got a lot way to go, and as good as we are, as high hopes as we have, I guess it’s my and Joe’s job to make sure we accomplish those goals.”
Harris said: “If we’re going to take a major step, I think that’s the step we have to take. We’ve been pretty productive in the regular season and conference play the last two years, finishing fourth. I think where we need to improve is the postseason.”
When Mitchell and Harris arrived at UVa in 2010, most of their fellow students showed little interest in basketball, and the crowds at JPJ reflected that apathy. Slowly but steadily, that has changed during their careers.
“We’re getting excitement around the basketball team once again,” Harris said. “We came here and we wanted to leave the program in a better spot than where we started, and hopefully we can say at the end of this year that we have, we’ve made those strides, and we’ve left the program in a good spot where it can continue to blossom and take off.”