Harris still the engine that drives Virginia’s run to Sweet 16

Virginia's Joe Harris (team-high 16 points) was one of five Cavaliers to score in double figures against Memphis.

RALEIGH, N.C. — If you don’t know about top-seeded Virginia, which advanced to the Sweet 16 with a resounding 78-60 win over No. 8 Memphis that wasn’t really that close, you should.

And you will soon enough, as the Cavaliers travel to Madison Square Garden next week for the East regionals, facing a team that many experts have pegged to win it all — Michigan State.

Not so fast, though.

"We know we’re playing a team that everybody has picked over us," said sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia’s leading scorer. "That’s fuel to the fire. That’s instant motivation."

Virginia (30-6 overall) ran roughshod over an ACC that hasn’t acquitted itself all that well in the NCAA tournament. But the Cavaliers were still dominant during the conference season … and dominating for all but 25 or so minutes of postseason action, too.

And if you’ve only been paying casual attention to the Cavaliers, you probably don’t know their best player — Joe Harris — has had to alter his game a bit this season, relative to past years.

However, the senior might be their most important player, even as he’s unselfishly deferring to equally talented teammates.

But "Joey Hoops," as he’s become affectionately known, is going to quickly become a household name.

With his Leave It To Beaver clean-cut good looks and plenty of actual on-the-court skill (leading Virginia with 16 points against Memphis), he has become a fan favorite.

Harris has received multiple marriage proposals. Teenage girls — heck, even adult women — openly swoon over the 22-year-old from Washington. So much so that "#swoon" has become a hashtag associated with Harris.

It has now spread to the men. A middle-aged male Virginia fan jumped up and down excitedly throughout the game, holding up a sign that read Man Crush On Joe Harris.

"I mean, look at him. He’s beautiful," fellow senior Akil Mitchell said of what started the Harris-mania. "He’s a beautiful man."

"I kind of have a man crush on Joe Harris," said sophomore Justin Anderson. "He’s a guy that you look up to. You want your brother, you want your son, you want everyone that you know, to be like. He’s just a great, down-to-earth kid. He’s a great guy and he’s just awesome."

Ask Harris about any of this, though, and he smiles politely but denies noticing. When asked specifically about the sign, he flushed a bit. "No, I didn’t see that," he said, laughing nervously.

But in general, he has to notice how much of a folk hero he’s become. Right?

"Oh, I mean, maybe if I was sitting back watching the game — I don’t know," said Harris, the blush deepening. "I feel like we’re so focused and concerned with what we have established, the game plan, all this stuff, we’re not worried about any of that stuff."

A coach’s son, Harris will always say the right thing. And it’s almost too perfect.

But his teammates insist that’s real.

"He actually might not notice it. He might not," Mitchell said. "I don’t think he does, actually. I really don’t think he does. That’s Joe, though. Joe’s just Joe."

Mitchell laughs before adding: "He didn’t read (the sign), though."

But that doesn’t mean his teammates don’t notice the love for Harris and his relatively popularity among the female demographic, age 10-60. Oh, they notice.

Anderson said the latest prank the team plays on Harris is when a teenage girl requests a picture with a player, they all act like they’re getting ready to take a group photo, only to leave Harris alone with the starry-eyed admirer at the last moment.

"I’m now the person that just stays with him and takes the picture with him because he gets all red and he doesn’t like it," Anderson said. "I try to make him feel comfortable in those situations."

On the heels of a strong 2012-13 campaign, averaging 16.3 points per game, Harris looked like a surefire pick for this season’s All-ACC team. But his scoring average dipped (11.7 ppg) and Harris only ended up on the conference’s Second Team list, mostly because the writers understand his true value on both ends of the court.

Harris did all of that because these Cavaliers have improved at so many spots, he doesn’t have to take most of the team’s shots. And his game has sometimes struggled as a result, although Harris doesn’t mind.

That’s what his teammates love the most about him.

In college, one of the ultimate acts of unselfishness one can commit is getting up in the morning before you have to get up. And Anderson, who has an early-morning class one day when Harris doesn’t have one until noon, said that Harris will routinely do this for him to go get breakfast with him and keep him company.

"He never lets that stuff get to him at all. He just wants to go out and play hard for his teammates. I’m telling you, it’s not just talk. That’s just who he is. He would rather see his teammates happy before himself. He’ll sacrifice and he’ll do whatever it takes," Anderson said.

"He’s just the ultimate servant. He’s the ultimate humble guy. When you have a guy like that, it’s hard not to love him."

One more try with the humble Harris, as this guy can’t possibly be for real.

Until you realize quickly, he kind of is.

"I just walked through and was giving people high-fives," Harris said. "Obviously, we love and appreciate our fans so much. But I didn’t happen to notice anything."