By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At John Paul Jones Arena, a crowd of 10,003 turned out for the official unveiling of Tony Bennett’s first recruiting class at the University of Virginia. It was Nov. 12, 2010, and the fans witnessed one of those newcomers hit five 3-pointers in Virginia’s 76-52 rout of William and Mary.
“I remember it was the Billy Baron show,” Joe Harris said with a smile Thursday at JPJ. “Billy went off. He was my roommate, my best friend, so it was a lot of fun for me to be on the court when he had such a great game.”
Baron and Harris were part of a six-player class that also included Akil Mitchell, KT Harrell, Will Regan and James Johnson. Of that group, only Harris and Mitchell remain at Virginia — Baron is at Canisius, Harrell at Auburn, Regan at Buffalo and Johnson at San Diego State — and they’ll play at JPJ for the final time Saturday. (UVa closes the regular season March 9 at Maryland.)
Mitchell, a 6-8 post player from Charlotte, N.C., has started 78 of UVa’s past 79 games. He was named to the All-ACC third team last season. Harris, a 6-6 guard from Chelan, Wash., is a four-year starter who made the All-ACC first team in 2012-13.
“I can’t even tell you how fast it’s gone,” Harris said. “It literally feels like just the other day that we got here, and we were walking to the top of JPJ and just sitting up there and looking down and being in awe of the arena that we were going to have a chance to play in. Next thing you know, it’s my last game in here.
“It’s definitely bittersweet, and I wish I had some more, but at the same time it’s been an exciting ride.”
At 3:45 p.m. Saturday, Harris, Mitchell and classmate Thomas Rogers, who came to UVa as a walk-on, will be honored in a Senior Day ceremony at JPJ, along with student-managers Mikey Carpenter, Luke Ford and Chelsea Mangino.
Then comes the main event: the most highly anticipated game at JPJ since the first one, UVa’s 93-90 win over No. 10 Arizona on Nov. 12, 2006. That Harris’ and Mitchell’s families will be present makes the occasion even more special for Bennett’s seniors.
“I couldn’t imagine my career ending any better,” Mitchell said Thursday.
At 4 p.m., No. 12 Virginia (24-5, 15-1) takes on No. 4 Syracuse (26-2, 13-2) in an ACC game that’s been sold out since late November and will be shown nationally on ESPN. With a win the Wahoos would clinch the league’s regular-season title outright for only the second time, and the first time since 1980-81. A victory also would stretch UVa’s winning streak to 13 games.
“Certainly this will be a special one,” Bennett said Wednesday night when asked about the showdown at JPJ, where the `Hoos have won a school-record 17 straight ACC games.
UVa’s opponent is formidable, but not invincible. Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim’s team has found itself in a series of tight games recently. Syracuse started the season 25-0, but victories No. 24 and No. 25 were by two points (at Pittsburgh) and one point (NC State), respectively.
The `Cuse then dropped two straight, losing 62-59 to Boston College at the Carrier Dome and 66-60 at Duke. The Orange bounced back to win its most recent game, at Maryland on Monday night, but that one was close, too: 57-55.
Still, to paraphrase former UVa coach Pete Gillen’s famous remark about another ACC power: Syracuse is Syracuse. Freshman Tyler Ennis is one of the nation’s premier point guards, and long, athletic players abound on the Orange’s roster, among them 6-9, 250-pound Rakeem Christmas, 6-8, 215-pound C.J. Fair and 6-8, 210-pound Jerami Grant. They make Boeheim’s trademark 2-3 zone one of the toughest defenses to crack in the college game.
To help his team prepare for what it will face Saturday, Bennett had his walk-ons don blue padded arm extensions for several drills in practice Thursday and Friday.
“It’s the Blue Man Group, literally,” UVa associate head coach Ritchie McKay said, laughing. “We ordered a couple extras. We probably should have seen if they come in orange.”
The arms “are effective for simulating length,” said McKay, who prepared the scouting report on the Orange. “Not so much the `Cuse athleticism, though. It’s just a little snapshot of what we’ll see, and obviously in the game it’ll be a little different because of how well Syracuse plays their zone, and how athletic their players are.
“But there’s a method behind the madness. Coach Bennett’s a little bit of a gadget guy, anyway, but I think the harder you can make it in practice, the more prepared you’ll be for it in the game.”
This will be the fourth straight game in which UVa’s opponent plays zone defense extensively, if not exclusively. The first was against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where the Cavaliers rallied for a 57-53 victory. Wins over Notre Dame (70-49) and Miami (65-40) followed.
Until the Virginia Tech game, McKay said, “we hadn’t seen much zone. So we had to prep for it, and we’ve been better and better as we’ve gotten more reps at it.”
In general, though, the Cavaliers’ practices this week have closely resembled those that preceded their games with Boston College and Clemson and Miami and the rest of the ACC.
“Nothing changes,” redshirt sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said Wednesday night. “We’ll prepare for Syracuse the same way we prepared for everyone else.”
“Just another practice,” Harris said after things wrapped up Thursday at JPJ. “Don’t fix it if it ain’t broken, and Coach is pretty consistent with most things, and during this little winning streak that we’ve had, he kind of likes to keep things the same. I don’t know if he’s very superstitious or what, but it seems like the practice plan is pretty consistent. We know what to expect coming in.”
McKay said: “That’s who we are. Coach won’t even mention that this is for the ACC championship. He’s just interested in quality basketball, and, again, I think after losing the way we did early — a couple of close losses and then getting smacked by Tennessee — our group has a healthy approach to the game. We know if we don’t play well we could get beat. That’s against anyone, especially in a league like this. But I think our guys obviously know the significance of this game.”
For the seniors, this has been a magical final year. In late August, Bennett put Rogers, a 6-6 forward from Farmville, on scholarship for 2013-14.
“Once he got it, I was so happy for him,” said Mitchell, who has lived with Rogers for the past three years. “He was so excited. His mom and his dad were crying, they were so happy. You just can’t help but feel so excited for a guy like that.”
For Harris and Mitchell, to be leaders on one of the nation’s best teams has been a dream realized. “This is exactly how we wanted it to be our fourth and final year,” Harris said.
As freshmen, they helped UVa finish 16-15. As sophomores, they helped the `Hoos win 22 games and advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
In 2012-13, Virginia finished 23-12 after losing in the NIT quarterfinals.
“Always progressing,” Harris said. “That’s what we wanted, and every year we’ve improved statistically from a wins standpoint, so we’re definitely very proud to leave the program in a better spot than when we came in. That was the goal, and that was the main reason we decided to come here.”
Mitchell said: “Joe and I came in together, and we’ve been through the ups and downs.”
One of the lowest moments came Dec. 30, when Virginia lost 87-52 at Tennessee. The Cavaliers, who had been picked to finish fourth in the ACC, looked vastly overrated as they headed into the new year. Since the debacle in Knoxville, however, they’ve lost only once: 69-65 to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13.
“We had a lot of hype coming into this season,” Harris said. “We didn’t necessarily live up to it at first, but stuck it out. We never doubted ourselves. We always believed that we had a very good team, and it was just a matter of time before we’d put the pieces together and kind of find that identity. And when we finally did and got the things rolling, the sky’s the limit. We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
In 2012-13, Harris averaged a team-high 16.3 points, and Mitchell averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds. On a deeper, more talented team this season, their averages have dipped considerably, but neither is complaining.
Harris (11.5 ppg) is second on the team in scoring, behind Brogdon (12.4), who sat out last season while recovering from foot surgery. Mitchell averages 7.0 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds.
“It’s kind of weird,” Mitchell said. “A lot of people would think that if your numbers are down, you’re not having as great a season. But I’m enjoying life. I’m having fun. When this team’s winning, there’s no better feeling than seeing my teammates happy and winning, and then feeling that joy. It’s almost addictive, to keep winning like this. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Mitchell’s cheering section Saturday will include his parents, his brother and his three grandparents.
Their presence at JPJ will motivate him, Mitchell said, “but I can’t feed off of that. Once that ball is tapped, it has to be another game that I play in. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve been doing for four years. It’s what we’ve been doing for 30 games this year, so it can’t be any different.”
For the first time since Harris enrolled at UVa, his parents and his three sisters will be together with him in Charlottesville. But he’s not worried about losing his focus Saturday.
“I don’t get too emotional over a lot of stuff, but I definitely will be very excited, and I’m going to try to savor my last moment in JPJ,” Harris said. “I can’t really thank the fans enough for everything they’ve done. So I gotta leave it all on the court and show how much I care through my play.”