Joe Harris

How good Virginia will be depends on whether they can replace the presence of Joe Harris

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Malcolm Brogdon (AP Photo)

BROOKLYN — You would be forgiven if you figured that No. 7 Virginia’s 45-26 win over Rutgers on Saturday was the score of a college football game, not the championship of the Barclays Center Classic, an event that, believe it or not, featured real, live basketball teams.

And if the score doesn’t convey just how boring the game was, think about it like this: as dreadful as Rutgers was, they were actually winning at halftime. It was 18-17, and with just under 16 minutes left in the game, the Scarlet Knights were only down 26-24. They wouldn’t score again for nearly nine minutes, a timeframe where the Cavaliers were only able to go on a 8-0 … push? Crawl? Trickle? Because it certainly wasn’t a run.

It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing in the least, but good luck convincing Tony Bennett that he should care. I’m not sure that he could have been happier about the way that his team played on Saturday night.

“It wasn’t pretty,” the Virginia head coach said, “but we said, ‘alright, we’re going to have to play defense. We’re going to have to win it with our defense.'”

Bennett is no stranger to winning games with his defense. His team finished fifth nationally in defensive efficiency last season and are ranked third this year. If you don’t like advanced stats, try this on for size: The Cavs have allowed an averaged of 43.6 points this season, with no opponent scoring more than 56 on them.


They can lock you down as well as anyone in the country.

That hasn’t changed this season.

Joe Harris (AP Photo)

But what has changed is my opinion of this group, one that I had ranked as No. 6 in the preseason and as the second-best team in the ACC. Simply put: I don’t know how this team is going to be able to consistently score this season, and the biggest reason for that is the graduation of Joe Harris.

On the surface, it looks like Harris had a miserable senior season. His scoring fell from 16.8 points as a junior to 12.0 points as a senior. He played fewer minutes. He got fewer shots and shot a lower percentage on them. It was also by far the best year that Virginia had while Harris, who originally committed to Bennett when he was at Washington State, was in the program.

That’s not a coincidence.

“His numbers were unimpressive but his importance was immeasurable,” one ACC staff member told in regards to Harris. “Lethal shooter who defenses had to key in on. [His] importance [wasn’t] reflected in the box score.”

Forgetting the fact that the 6-foot-6 Harris was a lockdown defender, he was also Virginia’s go-to guy offensively. They didn’t have any playmakers who could break down a defense off the dribble. Their point guard is London Perrantes, a facilitator and spot-up shooter, not a guy that thrives in the pick-and-roll. Their bigs were big, but none of them commanded a double-team when they got the ball on the block.

So when they needed a bucket in a big situation, they would run Harris off of a screen, trying to get him an open jumper or in a situation where he could curl to the rim. Harris was really, really good at this, and defenses knew it. The man that was guarding him would be trailing on the screen and the man guarding the screener would have to be just as aware of how Harris moving without the ball. Because of his ability to curl off of down-screens, help-side defenders would need to be aware as well.

Every time Harris ran off of a screen, three or four defenders would need to be aware of where he was and how he was going to read the screen, and that, in turn, would open things up for his teammates. Harris? He was fine being a decoy at times if it meant his team would win games; there’s a reason he was the No. 33 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft after “regressing” as a senior.

“With Joe, the things that he would do to sacrifice for the team when he could have scored so much more, that’s what our program does,” said junior wing Justin Anderson.

Virginia just doesn’t have that presence offensively this season.

Entering the year, Malcolm Brogdon, a redshirt junior, was the guy that everyone was talking about. He’s a big, 6-foot-4 guard that can do so many different things with the ball. He can pass, he can shoot threes, he can get to the rim, he can score in the mid-range. “You have to know where he is at all times,” Anderson said, but the jury is still out on whether or not Brogdon can be a team’s No. 1 option or if he was better-suited to a complimentary role.

Brogdon was as terrific in the win over La Salle on Friday as he was awful in the loss to Rutgers Saturday. In Virginia’s best win, over George Washington in Charlottesville, Brogdon had his moments but was not at his best.

Virginia’s leading scorer through seven games is Anderson, a 6-foot-6 wing with the reputation for being an athletic freak and a physical defensive presence. He appears to have added a perimeter jumper this season, as he’s now averaging 15.0 points and shooting 59.3 percent (16-for-27) from three. He’s been really good, but he also entered the season shooting 29.8 percent from three in his career and is just 1-for-6 against Virginia’s three high-major opponents this year.

Mike Tobey has never quite lived up to the promise that he’s had as a low-post scorer. Anthony Gill has had some nice moments since the start of Virginia’s run last March, but he’s not exactly Jahlil Okafor. Perrantes will set up offense and hit an open three, but he’s not going to create that much on his own.

Because of the methodical way that they play, Virginia will never be blown out. They won’t be beating teams by 30 and 40 points a night, either, but they’re going to win plenty of games. It would be shocking if they missed out on the NCAA tournament.

But it will be tough for Virginia to live up to their preseason expectations if neither Brogdon nor Anderson develop into a guy that can replace the presence that Harris had on the floor offensively.

No. 12 Virginia claims first ACC regular season title since 1981


In their final non-conference game before the start of ACC play No. 12 Virginia turned in its worst performance of the season, losing 87-52 at Tennessee in a game that was never in doubt. On that evening Tony Bennett’s squad looked more like a team that would have to fight its way into the NCAA tournament than one that could potentially win the ACC.

But that changed in conference play, and on Saturday the Cavaliers beat No. 4 Syracuse 75-56 to win their first ACC regular season title since 1981. Trailing by a point at the half, Virginia pulled away in the second half thanks to a combination of stout half-court defense and much-improved offensive execution. In the game’s final 20 minutes Tony Bennett’s team shot 57.7% from the field and scored a staggering 1.55 points per possession, making seven of its 11 three-point attempts.

However to focus solely on the second-half perimeter shooting when discussing how Virginia was able to execute so well against the Syracuse zone would be a mistake. The Cavaliers did shoot 8-for-16 for the afternoon, but they didn’t settle for many of those looks. Malcolm Brogdon, who finished the game 19 points, five rebounds and five assists, proved to be valuable in his ability to attack the Syracuse defense at the foul line area as both a passer and a scorer. Freshman point guard London Perrantes was also key, dishing out seven assists and turning the ball over just twice.

As a team Virginia assisted on 19 of its 27 made field goals and turned the ball over six times, winning the turnover battle against a Syracuse team that has excelled in that department for much of the season. And Virginia’s performance on the boards shouldn’t be overlooked either, as they both took away one of Syracuse’s strengths (offensive rebounding) and made the Orange pay on the other end.

Syracuse entered Saturday ranked second in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage, but they managed just ten offensive rebounds and ten second-chance points. By comparison Virginia corralled 13 offensive rebounds (Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey combined for ten) and converted those opportunities into 21 second-chance points, doing much of that work (nine offensive rebounds) in the first half. The Orange were missing a key piece in the second half with Jerami Grant (back) having to sit out, but the Cavaliers simply outperformed them on both ends of the floor.

Virginia has multiple players capable of taking the reins, something that wasn’t the case a season ago. Joe Harris, while not required to score as much as he did last year, remains a threat and the return of Brogdon has certainly helped to alleviate some of that pressure.

Perrantes has been outstanding in running the offense, making sound decisions and displaying a level of maturity you don’t always see from freshman point guards. And in the front court  Mitchell (12 points, nine rebounds) and Tobey (11 points, eight rebounds) both played well on Saturday, with Justin Anderson adding 11 points off the bench.

Virginia looked incapable of winning the ACC on that late-December Monday night in Knoxville, but as the season’s worn on the Cavaliers have shown otherwise. On Saturday Virginia achieved that goal, but there’s anything to be taken from the result its that they’re capable of doing more.

No. 12 Virginia moves one step closer to ACC regular season title


Conference play in the ACC has been interesting to say the least. With No. 4 Syracuse, No. 6 Duke and No. 19 North Carolina all being interesting teams to watch for varying reasons, those three teams received much of the attention nationally. But none of those three currently lead the ACC. The leader is No. 12 Virginia, which moved to 15-1 in conference play with a 65-40 win over Miami in Charlottesville.

The reigning ACC champions lost a lot of production from a season ago, and as a result the general strategy for Jim Larrañaga has been to slow games to a crawl. That did not work against the ACC’s best defensive team, as the Cavaliers limited the Hurricanes to 26% shooting from the field and 0-for-12 from beyond the arc with Erik Swoope and Rion Brown scoring 25 of Miami’s 40 points.

Tony Bennett’s pack line defense has done a good job throughout conference play of both cutting off driving lanes and challenging shots, with Virginia ranking first in the ACC in field-goal percentage defense (39.1%) and second in three-point percentage defense (32.3%) in conference play. With points per game (Virginia’s allowed just 54.0 ppg in league play) being as much a factor of pace as it is execution, those percentages do a better job of telling the story as to how effective the Cavaliers have been on that end of the floor.

Virginia’s also performed well offensively, and guards Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes are two reasons why. Joe Harris hasn’t scored at the level he did last season, earning first-team All-ACC honors as a result, but that hasn’t been a significant issue due in part to those two. Of all the players in the ACC just one, Brogdon (15 points against Miami), has reached double figures in every conference game this season. And Perrantes, who added a career-high 15 to go along with four assists on Wednesday night, is averaging less than one turnover per game and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.2 in ACC play.

Is Virginia being overlooked nationally? A good case can be made that they are, and how the Cavaliers performed in losses to Wisconsin (48-38) and Tennessee (87-52) may have something to do with that. But at 15-1 and a victory away from claiming the ACC regular season title outright, it should be clear that Virginia’s a team to be taken seriously entering March.

For the second time in two weeks, Virginia runs Florida State off the court

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For the second time this season, Virginia jumped out to a big first half lead en route to a not-as-close-as-it-seems win over Florida State.

On Saturday afternoon, the Cavaliers took a 45-26 lead into halftime, knocking off the Seminoles 78-66 to move to 4-1 in the ACC. The win came just two weeks after the ‘Hoos went into Tallahassee and knocked off FSU 62-50 in a game where Joe Harris played all of two minutes after suffering what appeared to be a concussion.

Virginia all-but solidified themselves as a top four team in the ACC this season. They had some struggles early on, but since their embarrassing, 35-point loss at Tennessee on Dec. 30th, they have won four out of five games in 2014. All four wins came in dominating fashion, and their only loss was a 69-65 setback at Duke.

There is a reason that Tony Bennett’s club was picked to be a borderline top 25 team in the preseason, and it’s starting to show. The biggest reason why? Joe Harris is starting to play like the Joe Harris we saw last season, the guy that led Virginia in scoring and was an all-ACC player. In the last four games, Harris is averaging 15.0 points while shooting 52.8% from the floor and 57.9% from three.

With North Carolina struggling and Duke scuffling to start league play, the top of the ACC is wide-open. Syracuse is the favorite, clearly, and Pitt isn’t far behind them. But if Harris continues to play this way, and Virginia keeps beating up on the rest of the conference, this is a team to keep an eye on down the stretch of the season.

Mike Tobey takes step forward in Virginia’s beating of N.C. State

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Less than two weeks ago Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavaliers took their worst beating of the season, losing 87-52 at Tennessee with many wondering if Virginia had what it took to turn things around and be the ACC contender they were expected to be. Since that result: three wins, all by double digits, with their latest conquest being a 76-45 win at N.C. State.

One reason for the margin was Virginia’s defending of T.J. Warren, who they limited to just four points on 1-for-9 shooting. The Cavaliers were also solid offensively despite shooting 3-for-13 from deep, with three starters finishing in double figures and the other two scoring eight points apiece.

Joe Harris scored 16 points on the evening, and since leaving the Florida State win early in the first half due to injury the senior’s averaged 13.5 points per game and has been a more efficient player on that end of the floor. Against Tennessee Harris, a first team All-ACC selection last season, shot 2-for-9 from the field and turned the ball over three times with the Volunteers doing all they could to limit his quality touches.

Saturday’s win marks the second consecutive game in which Harris has shot 50% from the field, and while the shot attempts may not be all that high (4-for-8 in both games) he’s still an offensive threat that opponents have to be mindful of. But even with Harris’ two-game stretch, his play on Saturday may not be the most important development to take from Saturday’s blowout win. That would be the play of sophomore center Mike Tobey.

After averaging 6.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game as a freshman and making the United States Under-19 team that won a gold medal at the U-19 World Championships this past summer, Tobey was pegged as a possible breakout player in the ACC by more than a few pundits. With Tobey up to 7.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game it can be argued that he hasn’t reached that status just yet. But against N.C. State’s talented (but young, with the exception of Jordan Vandenberg) front court Tobey tallied 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds.

Tobey’s afternoon comes on the heels of a two-game stretch in which he accounted for a total of six points and six rebounds, with the 6-foot-10 big man going scoreless at Florida State. Tobey’s now reached double figures in scoring in five games this season, so the ability to be an impact player offensively is there. The next step for Tobey, beginning with Monday’s game against a Duke team that is lacking in the post, is to do so on a consistent basis.

That would certainly help the Cavaliers in their quest to make a run at the ACC title, because Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell can always use some help carrying the load.

Despite losing Joe Harris early, Virginia bounces back with a win at Florida State

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The last time we saw the Virginia Cavaliers in action Tony Bennett’s squad looked bad, as they were outclassed on both ends Monday night in a blowout loss at Tennessee. With their best win coming at the expense of SMU, the Cavaliers entered ACC play in need of more quality wins. But who are the Cavaliers? A team many felt had the pieces needed to contend in the ACC didn’t have the results to match that belief, and their conference opener at Florida State didn’t have the appearance of a game Virginia could use to get back on track.

That wasn’t the case in Tallahassee on Saturday evening, as Virginia limited the Seminoles to 17 first-half points in their 62-50 victory. What makes the result even more impressive is the fact that they lost leading scorer Joe Harris to an injury just over two minutes into the game.

Offensively Virginia was balanced, with Justin Anderson leading four players in double figures with 16 points and Akil Mitchell grabbing a game-high 13 rebounds. The Cavaliers also grabbed 39.5% of its misses, taking advantage of an opponent that entered the game allowing an ACC-worst offensive rebounding percentage of 33.9%.

But with the Cavaliers shooting just 32.8% from the field, it was their defense that made the difference on Saturday. Florida State shot 30.8% from the field and 4-for-14 from beyond the arc, with the field goal percentage being well below the 48.7% Leonard Hamilton’s team was shooting entering Saturday. Add in 16 Seminole turnovers and it’s easy to see why Virginia was able to find a way to pick up a valuable win on the road.

So, who is Virginia? Honestly that remains a difficult question to answer, given the gap between their two performances this week. And there’s also the Harris injury to consider, because for as effective as Virginia was without him on Saturday they need him on the floor. We may still be without a definitive answer as to who the Cavaliers are and what their potential is but there’s still the talent needed to be a factor in the ACC, with Saturday’s result serving as a reminder.