By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Mike Scott won’t be on the UVa men’s basketball team forever, even if it might seem that way sometimes. And that’s one reason this season is so important for the Cavaliers’ young big men.
Scott, a fifth-year senior who’s one of the ACC’s premier power forwards, will be out of eligibility when the season ends. So will 7-0 center Assane Sene, who arrived at UVa in 2008, a year after Scott did. Virginia’s frontcourt reserves this season are 6-8 sophomore Akil Mitchell, 6-9 redshirt freshman James Johnson and 6-8 freshman Darion Atkins, and they’ll be expected to make significant contributions in 2012-13.
Mitchell may be ready to play a major role this season. Remember that skinny 17-year-old who enrolled at the University in June 2010, the Charlotte Christian School graduate who stood around 6-7 and was widely considered a mid-major prospect at best?
That player is a fading memory. With the 6-8 Scott sidelined for most of last season with an ankle injury, Mitchell was forced into the Wahoos’ frontcourt rotation, and he proved he could contribute at the ACC level. He’s now the first big man off the bench for Bennett and and says he feels infinitely more comfortable and confident than at this time last year.
“Definitely,” Mitchell said after practice Tuesday. “Offense, defense, everything.”
Bennett said: “He’s improved physically. He’s a lot stronger and heavier. He had a pretty good build on him as a freshman, but he really has physically become impressive from a year ago.”
Mike Curtis, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, has charted Mitchell’s progress over the past 17 months.
“He’s gone from a kid who was about 215 when he came in, and now he’s at 230 consistently,” Curtis said Tuesday. “But in addition to that, he’s gained a tremendous amount of strength. Some of that’s relative to him gaining body weight, but at the same time it’s been functional mass, because that increased strength has allowed him to be more explosive and to feel more comfortable in banging and doing all those things in the post that I think the coaching staff has wanted him to do for the last year or so.
“But other than that, it’s maturity. I think he’s gotten to a place where he’s happy where he is from a weight standpoint and an explosiveness standpoint, which has allowed him to embrace more the roles our coaches would like him to have.”
As a Charlotte Christian senior, Mitchell attempted 141 shots from 3-point range. (He made 44 of them.) Virginia’s coaches want him to operate closer to the basket and to focus on defense and rebounding and “the little things,” Bennett told reporters last month during the ACC’s media day in Mitchell’s hometown.
That’s where it starts for a developing big man such as Mitchell, Bennett said, and “if you’re ready to contribute in other ways, then that will happen. But you better contribute in the most important ways that you know you can.”
Mitchell has refined some low-post moves and is “becoming more consistent with his outside shot,” Bennett said. “So as that stuff evolves, his game becomes more effective.”
As a freshman, Mitchell averaged 2.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 15.1 minutes. He closed his first season with a career-high eight boards against Miami, but he was 0 for 4 from the floor in that ACC tournament game. For the season he shot only 33.8 percent from the field and 51.7 percent from the line. Mitchell was 1 for 8 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Mitchell knows his shooting must improve, and he continues to put in extra time in the gym. Where he’s most likely to have an impact this season, however, is on defense. He’s one of the Cavaliers’ most athletic players, and the long-armed Mitchell can guard players on the perimeter as well as in the paint.
“I’ve had guys like that in the past,” Bennett said, “and that’s really a nice luxury when you have a guy like that, just depending on matchups … An athletic guy at 6-8 can make a difference.”
Mitchell: “I’ve worked a lot with Coach Curtis on trying to get a little bit quicker and being able to defend multiple positions. I think I can do that.”
Reflecting on his first season at UVa, Mitchell said, he recognizes that Scott’s extended absence was “kind of a blessing in disguise for me.” The leg injuries that 6-9 forward Will Sherrill, who was a senior, battled last season also meant more playing time for Mitchell and other Cavaliers.
“They had to play,” Bennett said. “They had to fail. They had to succeed at times. They just kept growing.”
Mitchell’s growth continued in the offseason.
“He got stronger,” Scott said last month, “and he’s been working on his touch, working on his jump shot. Seems to me he’s jumping higher.”
Mitchell may add a few more pounds before his college career ends, Curtis said, “but I think 235 would probably be his ideal playing weight. As long as he’s still explosive and displays that athleticism that all of us are kind of wowed by at times, that’s going to be the biggest thing.”