By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a basketball team that includes players from such states as New York, Washington, Alabama, California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Illinois — as well as one from the African nation of Senegal — Akil Mitchell is the only North Carolinian.
As such, he knows more about Duke’s hoops tradition than do many of his teammates at UVa. Mitchell, a freshman forward from Charlotte, shared a secret the other day at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I was a Duke fan a little bit growing up,” he said.
That infatuation was short-lived. His extended family includes several University of North Carolina fans, Mitchell said, and “they don’t like Duke. I don’t know anybody that likes Duke. But I played with Seth, and I played against the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly. I know half their team.”
Blue Devils guard Seth Curry was two grades ahead of Mitchell at Charlotte Christian. Duke big men Miles and Mason Plumlee played at Christ School near Asheville. Kelly, a 6-11 sophomore in Mike Krzyzewski’s program, played at Ravenscroft School in Raleigh.
Mitchell will see them all Saturday when defending NCAA champion Duke (2-1, 15-1) entertains ACC rival Virginia (1-1, 10-6) at storied Cameron Indoor Stadium. ESPN is nationally televising the 2 p.m. game.
“It’s going to be really exciting,” Mitchell said. “I’m really looking forward to playing in Cameron Indoor.”
When Mitchell committed to UVa in September 2009, it was not a given that he would be part of Tony Bennett’s rotation when this game arrived. He was about 6-7 and 215 pounds then, and Virginia was the only ACC school to offer him a scholarship.
Mitchell, young for his grade, was considered something of a project.
“He was a potential redshirt guy,” Bennett recalled Friday.
Mitchell knew that sitting out a season was a possibility, “but I never really wanted to,” he said. “I always felt like I could play here and play at this level of competition.”
By the end of preseason workouts, the coaching staff viewed Mitchell differently. He’s grown since he arrived in Charlottesville — Mitchell is now about 6-8, 230 — and is the most athletic of the Cavaliers’ frontcourt players. Another first-year player, 6-9 James Johnson, is redshirting this season, and Mitchell has played in 14 of UVa’s 16 games.
“Akil has done some nice things,” Bennett said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised or encouraged by seeing him get out there and do some things.”
Mitchell’s role has grown since 6-8 senior Mike Scott, UVa’s leading scorer and rebounder, suffered the ankle injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season. In Virginia’s past seven games, Mitchell has averaged 18.7 minutes.
During that span, he has recorded career highs in points (9 vs. LSU), rebounds (7 vs. Oregon), assists (3 vs. Howard), steals (3 vs. Howard) and minutes (26 vs. Oregon and Howard). For the season he’s averaging 2.3 points and 3.4 rebounds.
“When Mike went down, I understood that the opportunity would be there,” Mitchell said. “I prepare the same way, as if he was still here. It’s just now I know that I’ll have more opportunities.”
Mitchell, whose father, Anthony, played at Howard and Florida A&M and then professionally in Italy, averaged a modest 6.5 rebounds per game as a high school senior (along with 13 points, 2 assists and 1.4 steals).
In part that was because Charlotte Christian had a dominant post player in South Carolina-bound Anthony Gill, who gobbled up rebounds. Mitchell spent much of his time on the perimeter. As a 12th-grader, in fact, he attempted 141 shots from 3-point range, making 44.
He’s 1 for 3 from long range as a Cavalier.
“Probably the biggest adjustment, playing-wise, is getting used to playing in the post,” Mitchell said. “I played in the post a little bit when I was younger, but it’s different. You just gotta learn.”
Until Mitchell enrolled at UVa, Bennett wasn’t sure for which forward spot he’d be best-suited — the 3 or the 4 — and Mitchell may end up playing both positions during his college career. For now, though, he’s working at power forward, and his enthusiasm for rebounding has pleased the coaching staff.
“He has good hands,” Bennett said, “and he has the athleticism to do that, and [given what] our needs are, that’s really important, and it’s been good to see him continue to improve in that direction. When you go against some of the big bodies and high-level teams and the lively play of guys in our league, that’s really important.”
Mitchell’s trey against North Carolina last weekend gave UVa a 10-point second-half lead, and he stays late to work on his shooting after most practices. His form is unconventional, but Mitchell is determined to become more consistent from the outside.
“I’ve already seen in-season improvement,” he said. “Hopefully by next season it’ll be where I want it.”
Against Duke, Mitchell is likely to be the first big man off the bench for the ‘Hoos. It’s hard to know what to expect from Mitchell during his transition to what is essentially a new position, “but in light of the circumstances, he’s done some good things,” Bennett said.
“He’s got a nice upside. He’s just got to keep honing his skills and keep growing in these circumstances and being as ready as he can, because he’s going to get opportunities.”
UVa hasn’t played at Duke since 2008-09, Bennett’s final season as Washington State’s coach. He’s never been to Cameron, where Virginia hasn’t won since Jan. 14, 1995.
The Cavaliers’ timing may not be ideal. They’ll be facing a team smarting from its first loss of the season. Florida State stunned top-ranked Duke 66-61 in Tallahassee on Wednesday night.
Would it be better to face an unbeaten team that might be tempted to look past UVa? That’s not a question Bennett has spent much time pondering.
“You gotta play it either way,” he said. “Certainly you’re refocused and you get back to what’s important to you after a loss, so there’s that. You can look at it both ways. I don’t have a strong stance. They’ll be ready either way. They have a tremendous home-court advantage.”