Six old pals took part in a group text message recently and, for a brief moment, allowed themselves to think about what might have been.
Yes, if you were wondering, Joe Harris, Akil Mitchell, KT Harrell, James Johnson, Will Regan and Billy Baron have fond memories of their brief time together.
“We were just laughing about some things from the old days,” Mitchell said. “We all still keep in touch and reminisce and check in on each other, and try and still share that bond when possible.”
Said Harris: “They’re still really good guys, really good friends of ours. We were just kind of wishing each other the best for the coming year.”
In an alternate universe, the six members of Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s inaugural recruiting class would be teammates preparing for their senior season, trying to return the Cavalier program to glory.
But in this one, they are merely friends attending five colleges in four states.
Harrell is at Auburn. Johnson is at San Diego State. Regan is at Buffalo. Baron is at Canisius.
Harris and Mitchell are the last guys standing, the two kids who stuck things out, the players who could see the big picture at Virginia.
“They’ve weathered the storm, so to speak, in terms of fighting and going through adversity and enjoying success,” Bennett said. “You work hard to get to your senior year so that you’re in this spot. They’re both competitors, they’ve competed hard. To see them get to this spot and hopefully take another step for the program and themselves wouldn’t make anyone happier.”
Back in 2010, not many people would have put money on Harris and Mitchell being the two most successful members of the class.
Harris was a kid from a small town in the Great Northwest who some believed wasn’t athletic enough for the ACC and hadn’t played against good enough competition.
Mitchell was a player with only a handful of scholarship offers from mid-major programs who hadn’t grown into his body and didn’t have a real position.
Neither Harris nor Mitchell was a Top-100 prospect.
Rivals ranked Harris and Mitchell as 3-out-of-5 star players.
Where many talent evaluators saw question marks, Bennett saw great potential.
Luckily for Virginia fans, Bennett has never put much stock in recruiting rankings.
“There are some [prospects] who just are so elite that your newborn child could see it, anybody could see it that they’re so good,” Bennett said. “After [that group], there’s such a small difference. There’s the five-stars and then two-stars, three-stars, four stars, there’s not that much [difference]. How do you know?
“Some guys just do what Akil and Joe have done. It’s not how you start but how you finish. To get concerned with how many stars they have or what they’re ranked, I think it’s such a subjective thing.”
Today, Harris and Mitchell are the linchpins of a team that is ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since the 2001-02 season.
“It seems like we’re getting a lot of preseason pub and recognition,” Mitchell said, “and people are really starting to notice the strides we’ve taken in this program.
“We need to keep making them and keep moving forward.”
Added Harris: “This is the most talented and deep team that we’ve had in my four years.”
Last season, Harris and Mitchell came into their own.
Harris was a First-Team All-ACC selection, while Mitchell was a third-teamer.
Harris averaged a career-high 16.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists. He ranked fourth in the ACC in scoring and 3-point shooting accuracy (43 percent) and fifth in made 3-point field goals per game.
The Chelan, Wash., native's coming-out party to the college basketball world occurred last February when he led Virginia to a 73-68 victory over No. 3 Duke at John Paul Jones Arena.
“He’s just one of the best players in the country,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after Harris poured in a career-high 36 points.
Mitchell, meanwhile made Virginia fans quickly forget about the loss of Mike Scott. The Charlotte native averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds, developing more than anybody could have hoped. He finished with 12 double-doubles, two more than Scott had notched the season before, and was the team’s best defensive player.
Not bad for guy whose best offers coming out of high school were from the likes of UNC Greensboro, College of Charleston and Navy.
Mitchell actually had a scholarship offer pulled by George Washington late in the recruiting process.
“That’s one of the things that’s helped me get through the tough times [at Virginia] — knowing what not being accepted and not being wanted really feels like,” said Mitchell, referring to his dealings with George Washington. “That’s part of the mentality that I have, something just harboring inside of me.”
Mitchell is still humbled that Bennett believed so much in him.
“To know that he put his faith and trust in me with a scholarship...same thing with Joe,” Mitchell said. “He saw something special enough to bring us into this first class.”
Harris and Mitchell’s teammates have certainly seen a special quality in them.
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon says there’s no question who the leaders on this year’s team are.
“Akil holds people accountable if they’re slipping or complaining during conditioning,” Brogdon said, “or not playing their role on the court.”
Harris leads more by example.
“If you want to see it done right, Joe’s going to do it right every time,” Brogdon said.
Last season, Harris took freshman Justin Anderson, who was struggling to adapt to college at the time, under his wing.
“Joe, man, I’m going to miss him so much next year,” Anderson said. “I give so much credit to him. He showed me little things that now I can’t wait to show the younger guys that we have now.”
Bennett has loved Harris and Mitchell’s growth as basketball players, but is most proud of the people they’ve become.
“They do it the right way as far as who they are off the floor, in the classroom,” Bennett said. “They’re really the whole package. That’s the vision I had when I came to Virginia — recruit guys that will stick it out, who value the degree in a mighty way.
“It’s so important to them — the educational experience, the opportunity to engage in all of the university experience, not just the basketball. These guys have great relationships and are friends with people who aren’t athletes, who are in the student body, and that’s what I love. They’ve really taken and drank in the whole experience of what UVa has to offer.”
Mitchell has been involved with Athletes in Action and worked on an athlete’s advisory council with Virginia Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, among many off-court endeavors.
Harris’s extracurriculars include work with a group called ACE (Athletes Committed to Community and Education) and participation in Virginia’s historic IMP Society, which, according to Wikipedia, is “notable for combining philanthropy and public mischief.”
Harris, who has said in the past that he would have gone to any college where Bennett was the coach, has fallen in love with Virginia and the city of Charlottesville.
“I can’t even imagine going to any school besides UVa,” Harris said. “I’m really happy that I made the decision to come here. It’s an amazing school and I’ve met a lot of amazing people who I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know. I’ve made a lot of really good friends in my four years here that are outside of basketball and athletics.”
Those friends will always include Harrell, Johnson, Regan and Baron, his freshman year roommate.
When he reflects on the turbulent times in the program, Harris believes he and Mitchell simply had the right mindsets. They didn’t expect roles on the team to just be handed to them.
“Since they had high expectations, they got a little impatient when things didn’t go the way they would have liked,” said Harris, referring to his former teammates. “Akil and I didn’t really expect too much. We were just coming in and trying to contribute in any way, just wait our turn and helping set a foundation for the program.”
There have been plenty of challenges along the way, but Harris and Mitchell say it’s all been worth it — especially if this season goes as well as they hope.
“To go through those things with Joe is pretty special,” Mitchell said. “We’ve grown a lot closer over the last four years and we’re to the point now where we’re like brothers.
“All of our teammates are like brothers, but Joe and I have a special bond where we can look back and know that we shared the same bumps and bruises and can laugh at the same things. We’ve learned the same lessons as we’ve gone through our time here. It’s really been a special bond. Hopefully it will keep growing and we’ll finish it out the right way.”