Joe Harris excited to have Virginia Cavaliers in Brooklyn for ACC Tournament
Brooklyn Nets guard helped tip off Virginia revival with tourney title in 2014
The Brooklyn Nets will return from a five-game, 10-day road trip in the early morning of Friday, March 9, and Joe Harris is hoping his Virginia Cavaliers will be waiting for him in Brooklyn.
If the Cavaliers are still in town, it will mean they've advanced to the semifinals of the 2018 ACC Tournament at Barclays Center, a fair bet as they've already clinched the tournament's No. 1 seed while claiming the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press college basketball poll.
"I watch any chance that I can get really," said Harris, who played four years at Virginia before being drafted in the second round in 2014. "Obviously, our schedules are difficult, but I feel like I've probably been able to watch close to 10 games so far this year, which is awesome, been more this year than in years past it seems like."
Harris had a chance to meet this year's team during Thanksgiving week, when Virginia played in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center. He was able to reconnect with coach Tony Bennett and his staff, many of whom Harris has known since Bennett was at Washington State recruiting Harris as a high school sophomore over a decade ago, and share Thanksgiving dinner.
Virginia defeated Vanderbilt and Rhode Island in Brooklyn that week to move into the Associated Press poll for the first time. The Cavaliers have risen steadily since, cracking the top 10 on Christmas and moving up to No. 1 on Feb. 12, despite suffering their only ACC loss two days earlier, a 61-60 overtime final against Virginia Tech.
A 65-54 win over Georgia Tech last Wednesday clinched the top seed in the ACC Tournament.
"They're a lot of fun to watch," said Harris. "You can just see the chemistry offensively and defensively. They play so well together. It could be Devin Hall one night, it could be (Kyle) Guy another, it could be De'Andre Hunter. Guys almost take turns in terms of the scoring load offensively. They play real unselfishly and then watching them defensively, they're like a fine-tuned machine. They don't make a lot of mistakes, don't really beat themselves."
It's a style Harris is familiar with. He watched Bennett's teams play that way at Washington State, about a four-hour drive from his hometown in Chelan, with every expectation of staying in-state for college. Instead, when Bennett opted for the Virginia job, Harris followed him across the country.
The Cavaliers had finished 10th or worse in the ACC in three of five years before Bennett got there. They hadn't finished in first place by themselves during the regular season since 1981 and hadn't won the conference tournament since 1976. The program's glory days - two Final Four trips and two ACC first-place ties led by Ralph Sampson in the early 1980s - were 30 years distant.
Harris arrived for Bennett's second season as part of the coach's first full recruiting class, a six-man group that Bennett pitched on being the team to bring the program back into prominence.
"We all knew coming into it that we were going to be trying to start rebuilding something," said Harris. "We knew it was going to be difficult and our first year, we were a couple of games below .500. We had a young team. We were just trying to put the pieces together. But you could kind of see the stuff going in the right direction. My second year, we had Mike Scott, who plays for the Wizards right now, he had gotten hurt. He had medical redshirted my freshman year. It was his senior year. We had him back for the full year my second year, and that's when we kind of got the ball rolling a little bit. We had a great start to the year and ended up making the tournament. It was a buildup from there, each year got better."
In Harris' sophomore year, the Cavaliers won 20 games and returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons. As a junior, Harris was named first team All-ACC after averaging 16.3 points and shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point range.
His senior year was the breakthrough for the program. Virginia finished first in the ACC and won the conference tournament, winning 30 games for only the second time in program history and reaching the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in 21 years. Harris was named second team All-ACC and was MVP of the conference tournament.
Virginia has been rolling ever since, this year finishing first in the ACC for the third time in five years.
"That was huge, just for the program and coach Bennett, Virginia, all the fans," said Harris. "They hadn't won an ACC Tournament title since like 1976. They didn't even win it with Ralph and some of those Final Four teams. That was a big deal for all the fans in Charlottesville and then for the program in general for us to see the fruits of our labor. It was a lot of tough years at first that not a lot of people realize, and then we were able to get it to that point. It's kind of been a well-oiled machine since then."