Dec. 31, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis was in St. Andrews, Scotland when he got the news.

Ellis was celebrating his 40-year wedding anniversary when he was called by his coaches and told that fifth-year senior Joseph Harris wanted to return to the program.

It was then that this season began to take shape for the Chanticleers.

Harris, who had already graduated from Coastal Carolina with a degree in biology, had another year of eligibility left after taking a medical redshirt in 2007-08. He was an All-Big South First Team selection last year, but his plan was to pursue a graduate degree in nursing, which Coastal Carolina does not offer. If he had transferred, he could have played right away, as NCAA rules state that if you already have a degree and are switching schools to do graduate studies, you do not need to sit out a year.

Harris made the original decision to leave the program for his family. He figured he could save his family some of its hard-earned money by getting one year of nursing school done while he was on scholarship. This led him to UAB. But, when there, it didn’t feel right.

Harris, among other things, expected the workload of graduate school and Division I basketball to be too much. So, on the day before school started at Coastal Carolina, he called his old coaches.

“When he got to UAB he saw that what was ahead of him was going to be a lot to undertake while continuing to play basketball the way he knows how,” Ellis said.

“He only knows one way and that’s 100 percent all out, and I think he’d have been juggling it there. So, he called us back. Fortunately, we had a scholarship waiting and it’s been a blessing for both of us I believe.”

Having Harris on the court has been a welcome site for the Chanticleers. At 12-2, they are off to their best 14-game start in school history. The 6-foot-5 forward is leading the team with 16.9 points and 10.6 rebounds a game.

“As soon as I came back I knew I made the right decision,” Harris said. “As soon as I stepped on campus they welcomed me and greeted me and were saying that they were glad to have me back. It seemed like I never left. Right there, I knew I was in the right place.”

Harris said he will attempt to play some level of professional basketball after this season, but he has not abandoned his desire to get his nursing degree. His brother is also pursuing nursing, and Harris said he is interested in nursing because it will allow him to help people.

But for now, his focus is on this year’s team and his teammates.

Coastal Carolina’s only losses this year are against Duke, which needs no introduction, and Cal State Northridge, which made the NCAA Tournament last year. The Chanticleers have quality wins over the likes of College of Charleston and Indiana State, and they are 2-0 with two road wins over VMI and Liberty in Big South play. With this fast start, they are hoping that Harris can help lead them to a Big South title and its first NCAA Tournament since 1993.

Above all the production, what Harris most brings to the team is toughness. The son of a marine, Harris plays the game with military-like zeal. Listed at 6-foot-5 and only 180 pounds, Harris is the school’s all-time leading rebounder. And, with 54 more rebounds, he will break the Big South rebounding record of 1,013.

“The thing that’s impressive about Joe is that he doesn’t just bring that big, physical presence,” Ellis said. “He’s 6-foot-5, around 200 pounds, but he rebounds with such ferociousness. I always compare him to the Energizer bunny. He never stops. His feet never stop moving.”

Harris’ dad, John, recently got back from his second stint overseas. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  

“Joe plays that way,” Ellis said. “He has that toughness mentality about him. I think it’s derived from his upbringing.”

Harris sets the tone for the team. A self-proclaimed “high-energy guy”, the Lejeune, North Carolina native takes as many possessions off as his jersey number indicates – zero. This mindset was drilled in to him as a freshman.

“When I first got here, coach (Buzz) Peterson basically told us that he had four starters and he was looking for that next person to play defense and do the little things, and I took pride in that,” Harris said. “He said ‘If you can play defense and rebound you’ll always have playing time for me’, so I took that as a challenge and it paid off now.”

Orders followed. Harris started 20 games as a true freshman, and he has been diving on the floor for loose balls ever since.

“When we watch him play, especially the young guys, and we see how hard he plays and with that much heart, it spills over to the rest of the team,” said fellow fifth-year senior Logan Johnson. “Everyone else wants to play hard, too, just to stay up with him.”

Valuing each possession is something that coach Ellis has stressed to this team, and there is no one better than Harris to execute that strategy.

“He just gives your team extra possessions every time you play because he’s going to come up with that loose ball, he’s going to get that extra rebound, and he’s quick,” Ellis said. “He’s not a physical player, but there’s not a better athlete or a quicker player on the court when he’s playing.”

Extra possessions have meant extra points for the Chanticleers because they have been very efficient on the offensive end. As a team, they are shooting 50.5 percent from the field. That’s ninth in the nation.

Making this even more impressive is that this team has consistently shared the ball well while using two freshman point guards. Kierre Greenwood and Danny Nieman have performed admirably in their first collegiate action, and have combined for nearly seven assists a night. With 17.8 assists a game as a team, Coastal Carolina is thirteenth in the nation in assists.

Ellis credits the senior leadership of Harris, Johnson and Mario Edwards as a big factor as to how these freshman have been able to contribute immediately.

Ellis also spotlighted the play of South Carolina transfer Chad Gray as being important to this team’s early success. Gray is second on the team with 16.2 points and 5.6 rebounds.

It is with this nucleus that the Chanticleers are setting their goal to make their third NCAA Tournament in school history. Radford and Winthrop are their chief rivals for the conference title, but as with many conferences, the most likely situation is that the Big South will only get one team in the NCAA Tournament - and that will be decided in the conference tournament in March.

“That’s definitely our number one goal,” Harris said of making the NCAA Tournament. “We just recently got a poster in our locker room that says ‘Mission to March’, and we try to focus on that every day, but we also don’t want to get away from taking it one day at a time.”

Their mission is March. And who better to lead them than the marine’s son.