Virginia’s Resurgence Directly Tied to Success of Joe HarrisPosted by Lathan Wells on January 16th, 2014
There is no question that Virginia entered the season fully expecting to be able to count on senior Joe Harris to elevate the team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 and make a serious run at the upper echelon of the ACC. Harris was considered one of the surest bets not only on the Cavaliers roster, but in the entire new-look ACC. He made the all-conference first team last season and received preseason votes for ACC player of the year. After a non-conference slate from which the Cavaliers emerged an uninspiring 9-4 with zero standout wins and whiffs in statement games versus VCU, Wisconsin and Tennessee along with a bad loss to Wisconsin Green-Bay, fans and analysts alike surmised the Cavs were having disappointing seasons from just about everyone on the roster. But Harris was actually the main culprit, with his scoring way down and, perhaps most puzzlingly, carrying an average of only seven field-goal attempts per contest.
Now, four games into the ACC slate, it appears that Harris has finally found his scoring stroke at just the right time. Virginia, needing a strong conference record to offset its non-conference woes, has begun 3-1 in the ACC with only a tough loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor blemishing their conference record. It’s no coincidence that much of what glaringly ailed Tony Bennett’s team early on has seemingly been remedied. The defense is still suffocating; the frontcourt is back to providing secondary scoring options and commanding the glass; and the team is getting better shots as a result of improved ball movement and patience.
But the re-emergence of Harris as the confident scorer he’s been in years past is the true key. Virginia’s defense is always going to be among the best in the country (the Cavs held their first three ACC opponents to 30.8 percent, 35.4 percent, and 28.9 percent shooting from the field, respectively, before yielding a kinder 44.9% to Duke), so it is on the offensive end where the Cavs will often win or lose games. Though they have several secondary scoring options, it is Harris who needs to be the catalyst for this team. This is especially true from long range, where Harris’ 41.3 percent from three is by far the best on the squad. Though both Malcolm Brogdon and Justin Anderson make at least a third of their shots from long range, neither has the ability to get those shots up if a defense doesn’t key on Harris as the primary option. Some teams in the ACC have the luxury of being able to afford occasional poor offensive showings from their stars, such as Duke with Jabari Parker or Syracuse with C.J. Fair. Virginia as presently constructed cannot win consistently with low-to-moderate scoring outputs from its senior guard.
Coming off a concussion suffered against Florida State, Harris has scored 11, 16, and 15 points in successive contests, much closer to his average of 16.3 PPG of a year ago than the roughly 10 points per contest he was contributing prior to ACC play. It was obvious in the early part of the season that the team had difficulty scoring without Harris looming as a major threat. As a team that consistently wants to run its offensive sets deep into the shot clock, Virginia needs someone who can create shots as that clock nears zero, and Harris needs to be that player. Now, it has to also be a welcome sight for Virginia that Harris is once again using his bulk to outmuscle leaner defenders in taking the ball to the rim as well as looking for his shot coming off of screens. These were his hallmark talents of a year ago and why so much was expected of him this time around. His versatility is also why players like Brogdon and power forward Akil Mitchell are suddenly finding defenses spread more thinly trying to guard sideline-to-sideline on the perimeter, allowing for more clear paths to the rim.
After Virginia’s humbling 35-point loss at Tennessee, Bennett implored his veterans to take on the leadership roles he expected from them upon season’s start. While Harris can certainly play the role of the seasoned veteran who leads by example and implores his teammates for more effort, what his team really needs on a regular basis is his scoring prowess. Everything looks better for Virginia when Harris is hitting his shots from long range and effectively creating his own offense, and it appears he’s rediscovering his stroke at the best possible time for the Cavaliers. A lot of things have to go right for this team to make the push it needs to enter the postseason, but the absolute must-have is a dangerous Joe Harris.