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ACC BASKETBALL:What Bennett offered, Cavs seniors embraced
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Whenever Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell reflect on their basketball careers at Virginia, they often think about the Cavaliers’ 2010 recruiting class.
There were six members of the class, but Harris and Mitchell are the only two remaining as seniors.
They weren’t the most heralded players in the group, but they’ve shown the most resiliency in an age where transfers are rampant across the nation.
Nearly 900 Division I players have transferred the past two years.
Mitchell said at the Atlantic Coast Conference Media Day Wednesday that it feels like free agency has hit college basketball.
“It’s sad to say, but you look around the locker room and it’s completely different from when Joe and I got here, especially in the last two years,” Mitchell said. “Guys are just up and leaving. Guys are transferring. Guys are coming in. It’s sad to say, but you kind of have to look around and realize a couple of your teammates won’t be here in a few years it’s upsetting but it’s the truth.”
Billy Baron, K.T. Harrell, James Johnson and Will Regan all entered Virginia with Harris and Mitchell, but are long gone.
After the 2012–13 season, freshman guard Taylor Barnette and sophomore guard Paul Jesperson decided to transfer.
Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett has had eight transfers in his four years at Virginia.
Bennett said Wednesday he’s brutally honest and it has caused him to lose recruits and transfers. Bennett said “right or wrong” he’s not changing because players “deserve” honesty.
“You can say a lot of things about me, even the ones that left,” Bennett said. “But they can’t say, ‘I was misled when I came into this program.’ You don’t have a lot of things in this profession, but one thing you’ve got is your word and I’m not messing with that. That’s more important to me.”
Harris said inflated expectations and a lack of patience have contributed to the constant turnover at Virginia. He said when players experienced success early on, but later struggled, they weren’t willing to fight through it. He said it’s “their loss” because “they don’t realize what U.Va. will do for you after basketball.”
Harris said when some players enter college after outstanding high school careers, they have supporters who believe they’ll be successful right away at the next level. They then have to explain why that’s not the case.
“They started to blame stuff and people were in their heads,” Harris said of the four players who departed from his class. “I think Akil and I have been fortunate enough to where we didn’t really have that problem where people are picking at our brains and stuff like that. Everyone was asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ and [then you] start making excuses for why you might not be playing. Unfortunately, for some of the guys in that class, that kind of wore on them and I think ultimately that’s what led them to transfer.”
Harris, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, started 25 of 31 games as a freshman and averaged 10.4 points per game. He scored 11.3 points per contest as a sophomore before he experienced a breakthrough last season.
He increased his scoring average to 16.3 and earned first-team all-ACC honors. Mitchell said Harris should be on the national radar, but “he isn’t good at self-promotion at all.”
It’s a trait Mitchell shares. The Charlotte, N.C., native could’ve departed Virginia like many of his former teammates, but decided to stick it out even after he averaged 2.4 points per game in 15.1 minutes as a freshman.
“Thinking about Akil and how much he’s improved from when we got in school it’s amazing to me,” Harris said. “Akil came in and everybody had kind of written him off. Nobody really gave him a chance to play and he really just constantly improved each year.”
Mitchell’s numbers barely increased as a sophomore when he played in all 32 contests but scored just 4.1 points per game.
Like Harris, he was a stalwart last season. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 13.1 points and a team-high 8.9 rebounds en route to third-team all-ACC honors.
Mitchell said he and Harris stayed at Virginia because they’re not about “flash.” He said they were more willing to put on their “hard hats” and “come to work every day” than their ex-teammates who departed.
“They came in and they were two-star or barely three-star [recruits],” Bennett said of Harris and Mitchell. “Now they’re playing a lot. They’re getting noticed for their future. I think that’s the way it should go.”
Bennett said he felt responsible for Harris because the Chelan, Wash., native decided to join him at Virginia. Harris was set to play for Bennett at Washington State when the coach was hired by the Cavaliers.
“Obviously, it was so much to offer [at Virginia] but he took a step of faith,” Bennett said. “He was probably going to go somewhere in the [Pacific 10 Conference] but he said, ‘I’m going to take a chance on this because I love the school Coach Bennett, I’m going to trust you.’ You always feel a responsibility when a young man puts his trust in you.”
Bennett said it is more “enjoyable” and “rewarding” watching Harris and Mitchell succeed because they “stayed true to what they committed to,” despite a losing season as a freshmen and three out of four without reaching the NCAA tournament.
Now that it’s widely believed the Cavaliers have the talent and depth to make a run to the NCAA tournament this season, Bennett wants to see the duo accomplish team goals.
“You know you can lose with them,” Bennett said. “You always talk about ‘I’ve got to have guys I can lose with first.’ We certainly did that. They’re trustworthy. I’m more proud when I see things go well for them because you build a relationship over four years.”
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