Virginia's Bennett, Harris trek turn Cavaliers into No.1 seed

calexander@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2014 


Virginia head coach Tony Bennett whistles for his team to begin practice as the Cavaliers readied for their opening NCAA tournament game against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers Thursday, March 20, 2014 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh.


— Neither seeks attention, much less acclaim. It’s not in their nature.

But basketball? It’s what they’re about, what they learned from their fathers, what they honed in gyms, often alone with a ball and their thoughts.

It’s been quite a journey for Virginia coach Tony Bennett and senior guard Joe Harris. It started in the spring of 2009, in the central Washington town of Chelan, took both to Charlottesville, Va., and continues Friday in the NCAA tournament in Raleigh.

There have been tough losses and big victories, and none bigger than beating Duke on Sunday to win the ACC championship in Greensboro. There have been coach-and-player talks, and none more meaningful than last New Year’s Eve, when Harris made the drive to Bennett’s house and hours were spent in a soul-bearing discussion after a 35-point loss to Tennessee.

On Friday, the Cavaliers begin another quest, one for an NCAA championship. It begins with a game against Coastal Carolina at PNC Arena, begins with Virginia (28-6) the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

When Bennett left Washington State in 2009 for the challenge of rebuilding the Virginia program, he already had made his recruiting pitch and a commitment to Harris. Named Mr. Basketball in the state as a senior in 2010, Harris could have played at Washington State but followed Bennett to UVa.

“I just went with my gut. I really wanted to play for coach Bennett,” Harris said Thursday. “I loved what the school had to offer. Everything felt like a perfect situation for me. Having that relationship with coach Bennett and the belief in one another kind of capped things off and allowed me to make the leap of faith to go that far from home.”

Had things been different, Harris might have ended his college career in Pullman, Wash., perhaps been an All-Pac 12 player. He has a big family and said there were those in Chelan who urged him to stay close to home.

Instead, he has helped Bennett build a basketball foundation, has made personal sacrifices, has become one of the most popular players at UVa since Wally Walker was popping in jumpers for Virginia’s 1976 ACC champions.

And, it seems, he has turned tiny Chelan, Wash., population 4,000, into a Virginia type of town.

“You see Virginia stickers and sweatshirts all over,” said Aaron McQuaid, one of Harris’ high school teammates and a junior at Central Washington University.

Trusting in Bennett’s system

“Joe Dog,” as Harris was called in Chelan, was a part of Bennett’s first recruiting class, along with forward Akil Mitchell. Others would leave, unable to handle the defense-first demands of Bennett’s system, but not Harris and Mitchell, a 6-8 senior from Charlotte.

“We never doubted coach Bennett,” Harris said.

Bennett’s basketball is based on gritty work on both ends of the floor, with no down time. There’s the “pack line” defense, more of a packed-in man-to-man, and an offense based on breaking down the other team’s defense – in some ways, a 40-minute, 94-foot test of wills.

“It’s a brand of basketball, a hard-nosed defensive style of basketball,” Mitchell said Thursday. “We’ve all worked hard, since day one, to establish that brand.”

It’s the kind of basketball Dick Bennett, Tony’s father, won with at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State. It also was the basketball Harris played for his father, Joe, the coach at Chelan High.

“Coach Joe was intense,” McQuaid said. “He pushed Joe to his limits.”

Tony Bennett, 44, took over the pushing and prodding, and not just with Harris. He made it known he wanted “character guys” who could handle the downs that would come before the ups at Virginia.

“If you get the right guys, if you can get some maturity, (there’s) no guarantee you’re going to win championships but you can become competitive and then you can become successful,” Bennett said Thursday.

Harris was one of the “right guys.” He was a first-team All-ACC selection as a junior last season, averaging 16.3 points a game. There was much to like about a 6-6 player who could hit the 3-pointer, make precise drives and cuts to the basket, hustle on defense and make the smart plays.

“He’s got a warrior’s mentality,” Bennett said.

Blowout loss turning point

Virginia reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 but was left out last year. That stung. There were early losses this season to Virginia Commonwealth, Wisconsin and Green Bay.

Then came the Tennessee debacle, when the Vols won 87-52 in Knoxville, Tenn., and Harris felt the need to go to Bennett’s house.

“It wasn’t how I envisioned the season going … or how the program would be in my last year,” Harris said. “We got obliterated. It was an eye-opener.

“I think from that point on the team figured out what its identity should be and got back to that. We realized we don’t have as much talent as we thought we might have. We have to collectively do this thing and it all had to start in the defensive end.”

But a part of it also was the Cavaliers employing more of a patterned offense that has balance. Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon is the Cavs’ top scorer at 12.6 points a game. Harris has averaged 11.7 points and was a third-team All-ACC choice this season, with nary a complaint.

“It’s a very unselfish group,” Bennett said.

On Sunday, after Virginia’s 72-63 victory over Duke in the ACC title game, Harris was given the Everett Case Award as the MVP of the ACC tournament. It likely was quickly packed away.

“When Joe got the ‘Mr. Basketball’ award in high school, he never said a word about it,” said Matt Engstrom, another of Harris’ Chelan teammates. “He never needed to be recognized for playing a game he loves. All he was ever interested in was playing basketball, the next game.”

For Harris and Virginia, that’s Coastal Carolina.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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