Unless you’ve been crushed by the burgeoning cascade of midterms or you’ve locked yourself in your room for the past week to catch up on “Game of Thrones” before the new season starts, you likely know that Virginia junior guard Joe Harris has evolved from popular basketball player into legitimate sensation around Grounds leading up to Sunday’s matchup against Georgia Tech. Always a respected player for his silky shot and affable personality, Harris enhanced his profile even further by averaging 22.4 points in his last five games and almost single-handedly sustaining the Cavaliers’ chances in frustrating road losses to North Carolina and No. 2 Miami. Heck, he likely could have fired University President Teresa Sullivan under shady circumstances this weekend and still retained much of his esteem around the University.
Of course, all that hoopla rendered an eventual down game from Harris inevitable. And although Virginia would eventually clobber a hapless Georgia Tech opponent 82-54 to claim its 15th consecutive home victory in front of the 12,232 John Paul Jones Arena faithful, Harris’ somewhat rickety afternoon included an 0-for-4 start, no 3-pointers made and none of the “wow” moments that have helped this star rise so dramatically in recent games.
That the Cavaliers dismantled the Yellow Jackets anyway, then, resulted largely from the stupendous play of Harris’ less-heralded teammates. Admittedly, the frenzied JPJ crowd and a Georgia Tech team dealing with a litany of debilitating flaws — including an often lackadaisical defense and shot selection that looks like it was devised by JaVale McGee and Russell Westbrook — contributed to Virginia’s 54.2 percent field goal percentage and 17 forced turnovers. Those familiar with the team’s recent play, however, would agree that several Cavaliers demonstrated marked improvement from their damaging two-game losing streak last week.
Senior point guard Jontel Evans, for instance, finally resembled the All-ACC caliber point guard Virginia fans anticipated before he broke his right foot in October. Channeling his inner Chris Paul during a sublime first half, Evans dissected the Georgia Tech defense with surgical precision while avoiding the reckless passing which torpedoed Virginia’s offense against North Carolina. Though more subdued in the second half, he also coolly handled Georgia Tech’s press defense to help Virginia weather an early 11-4 Yellow Jacket run. He finished with 10 points, eight assists, zero turnovers and total control over the game’s tempo in his 28 minutes.
Meanwhile, the always dependable but rarely dominant junior forward Akil Mitchell engineered the kind of two-way masterpiece that has often compelled me to wonder whether he or Harris is more vital to the Cavaliers’ welfare. After yielding too many first half offensive rebounds to Georgia Tech center Daniel Miller — a big man with Miles Plumlee’s physicality but Jabba the Hutt’s athleticism — Mitchell humiliated the Yellow Jackets in the second half with a combination of savvy off-ball movement and relentless energy. More than anything, Mitchell has improved so drastically from his first two seasons by finally realizing that he could play tenaciously without sacrificing efficiency. His 18 points on a torrid 8-of-9 shooting and defensive disruption Sunday epitomized his value to Virginia.
I sincerely hope Mitchell pulled backup center Mike Tobey in a grateful hug before doing anything else postgame. Out since Virginia’s loss to Georgia Tech Super Bowl Sunday with the bane of teenage existence that is mononucleosis, Tobey logged 15 gritty minutes in which he allowed Mitchell to revert from strict post-up option to his preferred role as a mobile slasher. More impressively, Tobey flew for rebounds and tussled for loose balls with an energy that belied someone who’s probably been napping for most of the last three weeks. By exhibiting such passion in his return, Tobey set the tone for his teammates and even pushed through early rust to muster a hard-earned 7 points and 4 rebounds.
But the interpretation of the Cavaliers’ romp as a product purely of players other than Harris elevating their play offers too facile an explanation for why they were able to squash the Yellow Jackets. In fact, Harris played perhaps his smartest game of the season Sunday, adjusting his game to complement his thriving teammates in a way that could spark a late-season run.
When his jump shot resembled Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in “Along Came Polly” in the early goings, Harris did what all elite perimeter scorers do to amend early wobbles: drive to the lane and draw a foul to reestablish offensive rhythm. His two free throws with 9:53 remaining in the first half may not make the SportsCenter Top 10, but they helped him sneakily reassert himself as a scoring threat without wresting too many shots from his sizzling teammates.
Yet when the Cavaliers stopped exploiting the gaping penetration lanes and started clanking 3-pointers to start the second half, Harris nailed two mid-range jumpers to staunch the bleeding. Thereafter, when Mitchell began to overwhelm Miller and the Yellow Jacket forwards, he again sidled into an ancillary role. Harris eventually tallied the quietest 15 points you’ll ever see, rarely drawing the uproarious support with which Cavaliers fans showered Evans, Mitchell and Tobey.
And therein lies the irony of Sunday’s outcome: in his statistically weakest performance in weeks, Harris did perhaps the most to bolster Virginia’s postseason chances. A more self-occupied alpha dog than Harris — such as Virginia Tech’s prolific guard Erick Green, who scores far more points but also directs far more veiled barbs at his teammates — might not have possessed the composure to defer to his teammates on the heels of such fervent recent acclaim. But by prioritizing the team’s welfare over his own box score — as well as by stabilizing things when necessary — Harris enabled Virginia to rediscover what they had forgotten against North Carolina and Miami: even without Harris, the Cavaliers can compete with anybody. Loads of perimeter players can score points when they’re feeling it, but only true stars find ways to inspire their teammates on the off-days.
If anything, Sunday’s victory should show the Cavaliers what they need to become to qualify for and succeed in the NCAA Tournament: an elite team paced by an elite player rather than a good team that over-relies on one. And if Harris and his teammates can complement each other just as well Thursday against Duke, you can expect the Joe-bilation sweeping Grounds to persist well into March.