Harris accepts lesser role, U.Va.'s season takes off
Harris accepts lesser role, U.Va.'s season takes off

The answer came straight to Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo.

Asked whether he'd ever had a senior star so clearly rein in his own game for the good of a team - as Virginia's Joe Harris has this season - Izzo invoked perhaps his favorite player from his 19-year tenure.

"Mateen Cleaves," said Izzo, citing the floor leader of the Spartans' 2000 NCAA championship squad and a future first-round NBA draft pick.

"There aren't that many guys that are about nothing but winning nowadays. That's why I have great respect for Harris, and great respect for (U.Va. coach Tony Bennett) on how he sold that."

It's hard to remember how hard a collective sell that was, given the distance the Cavaliers have traveled from their early season inconsistency.

But the team that fell early from the national rankings and even lost one game by 35 points will play Michigan State tonight (9:57 scheduled tip) at Madison Square Garden in the East Region semifinals.

A victory over the fourth-seeded Spartans (28-8) will put the top-seeded Cavs (30-6) one win from their first Final Four in 30 years.

No matter the result, Harris figures to be central to the action.

Not necessarily by scoring the most points - he's led U.Va. just 10 times. But by being the flag-bearer for a squad that parlayed selflessness and collective goals into an ACC championship and a 21-2 record since Jan. 1.

The scoring leader, however, is sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon (12.6 per game). Harris averages 11.8, though as a junior he scored 16.3 a game, led U.Va.'s scoring 19 times and made first team all-ACC.

But on this year's deeper team, Harris also shrank in minutes (33 to 29), shots (12 to 9) and all-league honors; he made third team.

A funny thing happened, of course. The Cavaliers tied the school record for victories and won just their second outright regular-season league title - by two games.

Harris has never shirked his go-to status as team spokesman, even as he was all-too content to blend into the team's fabric. It wasn't seamless.

There was an odd 0-for-4 shooting, one-point game in a November victory over Davidson. A frosty 1-for-10, two-point night in a December loss to Wisconsin. A 2-for-9, seven-point effort in that 87-52 wipeout at Tennessee.

And until recently, Harris even bounced passes off unsuspecting teammates expecting him to shoot.

"For a guy who's a star, he's as unselfish as anyone I've ever seen," assistant coach Jason Williford said. "But honestly there were times we were like, 'Joe, you can't turn down shots. Shoot.' "

Recently, however, is all that matters now.

Playing with as much offensive sureness as he has all season, Harris is on a five-game run in which he's averaged 10 shots, made 49 percent of his attempts - including 11 of 29 3-pointers - and scored 15 points a game.

"He's gotten a lot more consistent down the stretch," Williford said, "and we've sort of taken off because of that."

The tear won Harris the MVP in the ACC tournament and further buried the discouragement he felt over the halting start to his final season, which Harris blamed in part for his own failure of leadership.

"Not that we were selfish, but we just were more concerned with individual accomplishments," Harris said Thursday. "I thought I had to do a better job of trying to relay to my teammates that this isn't about any one particular individual or who's scoring or who's doing what."

Harris and fellow senior Akil Mitchell, who draws similar kudos from U.Va.'s staff for focusing on team achievements, walked that talk enough that the Cavs at midseason began to become the "player-led team" Bennett said he favors.

They have since hummed almost without interruption, in part because Harris still presents such a threat to defenses that others, especially Brogdon, have thrived.

A hard-driving wing, Brogdon regularly finds lanes to the hoop because, in U.Va.'s motion offense, Harris runs so relentlessly off of screens. That spreads out defenders concerned about Harris from the perimeter. He ranks second all-time at U.Va. with 261 career 3-pointers.

"He's one of the best off-ball moving guards in the country," Brogdon said. "He just moves extremely hard and that opens things up for everybody. Yes, sometimes can be a little too selfless. But we've gotten to the point where he's shooting enough for us to be as good as we need to be."

Harris, too, said enough now seems just right.

"I knew statistically I wouldn't be where I was last year," he said, "but that's not a big deal to me at all. If I was trying to score at the rate I did last year, this team probably wouldn't have had as much success as it's had.

"We're able to have success because the guys don't care who gets the credit. That all starts at the top with our coaching staff, it feeds down to Akil and I, and then it down to everybody else."

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