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Feb. 15, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – When it comes to descriptions of basketball players, “efficient” isn’t the most exciting adjective.
And yet it’s a perfect fit for Joe Harris of Virginia. In his last three games the 6-foot-6 junior averaged 23 points while shooting 70 percent (21 of 30). He hit 67 percent of his 3-pointers (10 of 15) and 89 percent of his free throws (17 of 19).
“Our coaches are constantly talking to our team about being efficient players,” Harris said. “(That means) not turning the ball over, shooting at a high clip, taking the right shots and not forcing anything, and soundness across the board.”
Even Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett is hard-pressed to pinpoint reasons for Harris’ success. “Complete” is another word that comes to his mind.
“There’re two plays that I thought were really important,” Bennett said Monday, referring to an 80-69 road win at Maryland. “He had a big block at a crucial time, then he poked a ball away and dove on the floor.
“He competes really hard (and is) not afraid to throw his body out there and do what’s required. I just think he’s doing the right things, and, of course, scoring. But I like his efficiency.”
Harris has stepped up his statistics recently, which has helped Virginia win seven of its last eight games, but he’s been playing well the whole season. He ranks fourth in the ACC with a 16.3 scoring average, fifth with a 49.1 shooting mark, ninth in free throws at 76.1 percent and first in 3-point percentage at 48.4.
In league games only, he’s even better – second in scoring at 17.8, fourth in shooting at 51.2, fourth in free throws at 77.8 and first in 3-pointers at 50 percent.
Opposing coaches know that while Harris may not be the most spectacular player in the league, he’s someone who will find a way to help his team beat you. James Johnson of Virginia Tech cited Harris’ ability to read screens, change speed and direction, get to the basket, pass and rebound.
“When you have a player like that, you’ve got to always be alert guarding him,” Johnson said. “You can’t take away one particular thing because he can do so many things well.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called Harris “a great player” who uses his head.
“He’s probably one of the smartest players that I’ve ever coached against,” Turgeon said. “He’s like a security blanket for them. They go to him, they run their (3-point) game when the game gets tough and he usually comes through. He’s a heck of a player and he’s one of the best we’ve played against this year.”
His knowledge of the game comes honestly. Harris played basketball for his father at Chelan High School, located in the town of 4,000 in north central Washington. He began absorbing the finer aspects of the game from a young age.
“My dad always brought me along with him from the time I was about 4 years old,” Harris said. “I was in the gym every single day at all his practices. I was one of the kind of kids that if I ever got in trouble my punishment would be that I couldn’t go to practice with my dad.
“So I grew up around the game, I learned a lot from my dad and his players and basketball is the one thing that I have a real passion for.”
Bennett, who played for his father in college at Wisconsin-Green Bay, fully understands what that kind of exposure to the game means.
“I think if you grow up around the game as a coach’s son, you think it maybe a little more,” Bennett said. “Your IQ, your familiarity with how coaches think helps.
“The thing I know about his father … he was demanding, very tough on Joe, hard on him. That, to me, is great because that's what you want. You want a kid who is battle-tested, pushed hard beyond his comfort zone. You know when he gets in those situations he's not going to fold.”
Harris said he realized his father was going to be tough on him.
“My dad is a pretty intense coach,” he said. “He’s been coaching for a long time and he’s old school, sort of an in your face type of coach. He’s also the same guy who will give you compliments.
“With me he was a little bit different. He might have been harder on me and less likely to give me the compliments. I might not have liked it at the time, but looking back on it, it was probably the best thing for me.”
Bennett began recruiting Harris when he was the coach at Washington State. When Bennett accepted the job at Virginia, Harris took a visit and decided to follow him there.
Harris had decided to forego football in his senior season of high school to concentrate on basketball. But the football background instilled an extra portion of toughness that Bennett likes.
“I always really liked to hit,” Harris said. “I’ve never been afraid of contact and I think that helps a lot for basketball. People might not consider it a contact sport, but the more physical you play the better it makes you.”
Harris has been an integral part of Bennett’s rebuilding process from the beginning. He has steadily improved from 10.4 points and 41.8 percent shooting as a freshman to 11.3 points and 44.2 percent shooting as a sophomore to this year’s impressive stats.
Now that Harris is an upperclassman, Bennett is counting on him for more leadership, which he has delivered.
“Coach challenged us in the offseason to step into that leadership role, be more vocal, do things we might not have been used to our freshmen and sophomore years,” Harris said.
“I took it upon myself to really help the young guys get adjusted to college life and try and teach them what coach wants, his philosophy and style of play, try to get that ingrained in them.”
Although he’s not a point guard, Harris still considers himself an extension of the coaching staff on the floor.
“I have a pretty good grasp of things and understanding what our coaching staff wants from us. Guys on the floor have to take some responsibility and lead that way, so I’ve had to step up and do that this year.”
It has been an odd year for the Cavaliers in some respects. They’re 18-6 overall and solidly in third place in the ACC with an 8-3 mark heading into Saturday’s game at North Carolina. Their “pack line” defense has been consistently good.
Yet they have inexplicably lost to some teams they probably shouldn’t have.
“Early on, we struggled a little bit because we had such a young team and we were missing some key guys (with injuries),” Harris said. “We still ride a very fine line. We can play with most teams in the country but we can also play ‘down’ and be on the opposite side of things.”
But Harris believes the team is coming together offensively and its objective is to try “not to look too far into the future, just focus on what we’ve got to do now.”
And keep up that efficiency.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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