Home Virginia point guard Dante Harris is itching to get back on the floor after redshirt year

Virginia point guard Dante Harris is itching to get back on the floor after redshirt year

Scott Ratcliffe
dante harris uva
Photo: UVA Athletics

When Virginia guard Dante Harris steps on the floor for the Cavaliers’ season opener in November, he will be seeing his first live game action in about 20 months.

The last time the Georgetown transfer suited up for a meaningful contest was on March 9, 2022, against Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament, but Harris can’t wait to get back on the court in a few months in a Virginia uniform.

After deciding to leave the Hoyas’ program last fall, Harris found his way to UVA, where he redshirted during the spring semester last season as he began the process of getting acclimated with his new surroundings. Harris, a 6-foot, 170-pound point guard who recently celebrated his 22nd birthday, will have three years of eligibility remaining as a Wahoo.

“We are excited to add Dante to the Virginia basketball family,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said when the Cavaliers officially added him to the roster in early January. “Dante is a talented guard who brings valuable experience and leadership to our team. We look forward to having him join our program.”

In his two seasons with the Hoyas under then-head coach and NBA legend Patrick Ewing, Harris appeared in 55 games — with 50-consecutive starts — after he was initially expected to serve in more of a reserve role coming in.

As a freshman in 2020-21, Harris put up 8.0 points, 3.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, leading the team in takeaways with a total of 30.

“The games were a lot more, I’d say, intense,” Harris said of the jump to the college level. “There’s a lot of competition. You’re playing against grown men, so it just helped me to pick my spots, when I’m open, shoot it with confidence and always just making the right play helped me over the two years at Georgetown.”

Getting his first taste of March Madness, Harris put the Hoyas on his back in the Big East Tournament, leading the team all the way to the championship, and with it a berth in the NCAA Tournament. He was presented with the Dave Gavitt Trophy, given to the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, after averaging 11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists across his four games.

“That was an amazing accomplishment,” said Harris. “First of all just winning it, I think we were picked last that year in the standings, so just overcoming adversity — we had a great group of guys — and us all just coming together and winning the Big East Tournament was special for the hilltop. And just winning the MOP was a great, great feeling. Before the game, my dad had asked me about it, and I said, ‘I just want to win,’ but it turns out, I got lucky. So it was just a blessing, and I was grateful for it.”

As a sophomore in 2021-22, Harris averaged 11.9 points, 4.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 32.2 minutes per game, shooting 38 percent from the field, 75 percent from the free-throw line and 28 percent from downtown.

He decided to leave the nation’s capital midway through December of last year after stepping away from the Georgetown program last fall.

Known throughout his basketball career as a prolific scorer, the Washington, D.C., nativeplayed his high-school ball in Tennessee. As a senior at Lakeway Christian Academy in Morristown, Harris averaged 32.6 points, 9.3 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, and was a finalist for Mr. Basketball honors in the state.

Harris said his scoring ability came naturally growing up, but that his father Michael also had a big impact in helping him develop his craft.

“Just being in the gym constantly with my dad, that’s all we used to do was be in the gym,” said Harris. “Practice shots, work on different moves and techniques, and I’ll say just the fire and the mentality that I always have is go get a bucket every time.”

His head coach at Lakeway just happened to be none other than legendary Cavalier guard Curtis Staples, one of the greatest scorers in UVA history.

“He was my high school coach when I was in Tennessee, and things went from there,” explained Harris. “He called [the UVA coaches] to see what they were looking for, and my name came into the picture.”

For Staples, who scored 1,757 points as a Cavalier from 1994-98 with 1,239 of those coming from 3-point land, the most memorable moment from his time coaching Harris was a conference game on the road in which Lakeway was trailing by a wide margin at halftime.

“We were having a really bad game,” said Staples. “It was one of those games where things weren’t going well in the first half and he wasn’t playing well. And so at halftime, I was hard on him.”

The coach said he felt that Harris’ head just didn’t seem to be in the game, and that the talented guard was playing way too “lackadaisical” for his liking. Staples added that he was harder on Harris because he expected more from him on a consistent basis.

He reminded Harris that just saying you’re an elite, Division-I level player and actually playing like it every second the ball was in play were two separate things. Staples said he had “some really, really strong conversation” with Harris at halftime, with the team staring at a 20-point deficit. Whatever he said did the trick, as Harris’ 56 points led Lakeway to a come-from-behind win.

“He started putting the show on,” said Staples. “He came out of the locker room on a mission and he scored 37 points in the second half and we won in overtime. That was pretty amazing. I mean, I haven’t had a kid put on that type of performance. It was unbelievable. They were trying to trap him in the backcourt and he was just speeding through the traps, but it was a sight to see, man.”

Staples was UVA teammates with current associate head coach Jason Williford, and the two are still close friends to this day. Having coached Harris and knowing what all he can do as a floor general, while also being aware of the loss of UVA veteran Kihei Clark to exhausted eligibility and possibly Reece Beekman to the NBA Draft, Staples began pondering the idea of Harris becoming a Wahoo.

As Staples explained, Virginia wasn’t his initial suggestion when Harris approached him in hopes of helping him find a new college home.

“When the time came that he wanted to make a change, he called me and told me that he needed some help making a change, and I said, ‘No problem, I’ll help you,’” recalled Staples. “And we started to look at scenarios where he felt like he was needed, and so as I started to look around, I saw that Kihei was going to be gone and that spot where it needed to be filled.”

Staples recommended that Harris put his name in the transfer portal and see if the Hoos might be interested, and the rest, as they say, is history.

After officially putting his name in the portal, Harris lined up a visit to John Paul Jones Arena when UVA hosted Houston in a top-10 matchup in December. Shortly thereafter, Harris chose to continue his college career at Virginia.

“The fan base was amazing,” Harris said of the experience, “just seeing how happy they get, how excited they get for a couple missed free throws or a huge steal. So it was amazing just to be here for that game, but also just to hang around the guys. A couple of those guys left, but just being around the team, I just knew right then and there, this is something I wanted to be a part of.”

Staples admitted that he hoped it would all work out, but added that he didn’t want to put any extra pressure on Harris just because UVA was his alma mater.

“I wanted him to do his own thing and make his own decision,” said Staples, who was ecstatic when he heard the news. “It made me feel really good — I know he’s in good hands.”

Harris enrolled in January and was able to sit with the team on the bench during games, and had the entire semester to work out and practice with his Cavalier teammates, learn the system, get familiar with JPJ and the facilities, and most of all get settled in his new hometown of Charlottesville, which he said he hasn’t gotten to venture around and explore as much as he’d like.

That extra semester did give him a chance to bond with the team, but also to learn all the ins and outs of the Pack Line defense.

“I feel like it helped a lot, just being around the guys and just also learning the coaching staff’s system, how they run their program,” said Harris. “The defensive scheme is one of the best in the nation, so just getting a head start on [the Pack Line] and how Coach Bennett runs his program was very beneficial.”

Added Staples: “That extra semester, I feel, was huge, just to get there and see it, watch. It’s one thing to have to come in and actually have to learn everything from scratch, but he was able to kind of get that half a year under his belt and see exactly how it’s supposed to work. He has to learn all of the things he needs to learn, but I definitely think that he’ll pick it up… He really does adapt quickly, so I think it’ll be an easy learning curve.”

While he owns a reputation for his offensive skills, Harris said he has also always taken just as much pride in his defense. He was able to utilize those skills against Clark and Beekman in practice on a daily basis behind the scenes last spring. Harris said that competition against such talented guards only helped improve his ball-handling and decision-making, along with his defending ability.

“I think my defense is a big part of my game as well,” he said. “Just being an undersized guard, you have to have that dog mentality, and just to be able to guard is what gets you to the next level. Offense is good and all, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to strap up and pick up 94 feet and just make the other team’s offense hard. So I feel like defense is one of my priorities as well.”

Harris knows there’s a lot more emphasis on the defensive end at UVA, and added that while Georgetown played tough defense as well, he’s aware that the Pack Line is just in a category of its own.

“I feel like the defense is the priority here, which is how it’s supposed to be, because that’s what’s going to win us championships and things of that nature,” Harris said. “I feel like I’m getting the hang of it, but there’s also still spots I can learn from. Just working at it every day and getting better and being able to be coachable, and take what I’m given as they’re just trying to help me. And just also learning from previous guys that have already been here.”

Now that he’s been in town for a few months, and after significant shuffling of the Virginia roster in the offseason, there’s certainly a path for considerable playing time for Harris and the team’s three other incoming transfers — Jordan Minor, Jacob Groves and Andrew Rohde.

“I’d say excitement. That’s the main word, is excitement,” Harris responded, when asked to describe what he’ll be bringing to John Paul Jones Arena this season and beyond.

Harris, who Staples describes as a “very quick, unselfish point guard,” says the summer practices have lived up to expectations, and is excited to continue working with his Cavalier teammates into the fall.

“Very intense,” Harris said of the workouts. “We’ve got a great group of guys. We’re all hungry, we’re all determined. At the end of the day, we just want to win.”

As for what his exact role will be at UVA, Staples knows that Harris has the capability of lighting up the scoreboard, but doesn’t necessarily think he’s going to be asked to do so in Bennett’s slower-paced offense.

“I mean, he was unstoppable in high school,” Staples said. “He was just much quicker than everybody so he could get into the lane very, very quickly and score. He’s strong, so he was able to finish and take hits. So I saw him do some pretty remarkable things in high school. [At Virginia], he doesn’t have to do that as much to run the system and perform well in the system and do exactly what he’s asked to do. And so if he needs to score, he can, so I think it’s just a plus having the ability to do that, but here he understands the system and what it takes to win.

“I think more than anything for him, it’s about winning and doing all that it’s going to take for him to help the team win. Individually, he’s not interested in that anymore — those golden days are gone from high school.”

Harris believes the team has been gelling together considerably well in the short amount of time they’ve been together in Charlottesville, and sees big things in the near future for the Hoos.

“I feel like we’re coming together great,” he said. “I feel like just working out in the offseason right now, going at each other every day is really helping us. And I feel like we will shock a lot of people — I don’t want to give you too much inside scoop, but we’re going to be very good. I can’t wait, it’s gonna be an exciting year and I just can’t wait to prove a lot of people wrong.”

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.