Aug. 5, 2012

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Have basketball, will travel. That could be Akil Mitchell’s motto these days.

In May, not long after his second year at the University of Virginia ended, Mitchell visited Europe with an Athletes in Action basketball team. Now the 6-8 forward is headed back to the Continent, this time with his coaches and teammates from UVa.

A Division I team is allowed to tour foreign countries once every four years, and the Cavaliers leave Monday on a trip that will take them to the Netherlands (Amsterdam), Belgium (Antwerp) and France (Paris). Along the way, Virginia will play five games.

“It should be fun,” Mitchell said at John Paul Jones Arena. “I know a lot of these guys haven’t been to Europe. I can’t say I’m a pro at it or anything, but I get to tell them about the exchange rates and everything. It’ll be a good experience for our team.”

With his Athletes in Action team, whose other players included Baylor’s Brady Heslip and Deuce Bello, Mitchell spent about two weeks in Poland and Germany.

“It was a really interesting cultural experience,” said Mitchell, who’s from Charlotte, N.C., “getting to meet all the people over there and getting to see the cities. It kind of changed me in a good way, getting to see the world like that. And it really helps when you get to play basketball and touch people’s lives with basketball.”

Among the places the Athletes in Action group visited in Poland was Auschwitz, site of a former Nazi concentration camp at which hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed during World War II.

Mitchell knew something about Auschwitz from his studies, “but it’s really different when you see it first-hand,” he said. “We got to take a tour, and it really kind of opened your eyes to the things that people have seen and people have done. You get to see how strong people are across the world, how strong their faith is.”

The Cavaliers’ itinerary includes visits to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and to the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. For his players “to experience the cultural side of things where we’re going is going to be great,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said Friday at JPJ.

As a player on the Wisconsin-Green Bay team coached by his father, Dick, Bennett traveled to Ukraine on a summer tour. Bennett later visited Italy with the Wisconsin Badgers, for whom he was an assistant, and toured New Zealand and Australia with his Washington State team in 2007.

Those teams traveled abroad in June, Bennett said. By waiting until August, UVa can include its freshmen on this tour, and “that was too valuable for us” to pass up, Bennett said.

“We’ll have to be strategic with how much time we give [the players] off and how we build it up when we get back, but the benefits are tremendous, in terms of these practices, getting guys used to it.”

Under NCAA rules, the Wahoos are allowed 10 practices before departure. The 10th will be Monday morning at JPJ.

“My focus on this trip is certainly to enjoy the experience, to bring our team closer together, but we want to go over there and play well,” Bennett said. “Of course that’s important.”

Another focus, Bennett said, is to instill “some things with a lot of newer faces that’ll put us ahead when we start our practices come mid-October. We’re really taking the time to introduce [core principles to] the new guys and then re-establish [them] to the returners.”

Eleven scholarship players will make the trip to Europe. (The team’s 12th, forward Anthony Gill, transferred to UVa from South Carolina after the 2011-12 school year and isn’t eligible to participate.) Of that group, point guard Jontel Evans is the lone senior. Mitchell and swingman Joe Harris are the only juniors.

“It’s kind of weird,” Mitchell said. “I just turned 20. I’m not old, but I feel old.”

Virginia’s roster includes five scholarship freshmen: 6-11 Mike Tobey, 6-8 Evan Nolte, 6-6 Justin Anderson, 6-2 Taylor Barnette and 5-11 Teven Jones.

The trip to Europe “will be big for them,” Mitchell said. “That will be big for our team, because they’ll get that little bit of experience just going into the season. They’ll be caught up to speed, getting into it, and we should be ready to go by the start of the season. We should already know what we’re doing.”

On a team led by All-America forward Mike Scott, the 235-pound Mitchell averaged 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds last season. Mitchell’s role evolved as the year went on. The Cavaliers’ top frontcourt reserve early in the season, he became a starter after 7-0 center Assane Sene suffered an injury Jan. 19 and held that job the rest of the way.

Mitchell’s production was modest, but he had a double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds) against NC State in the ACC tournament, and the `Hoos desperately need him to contribute this season.

“We’ll be a different team without Mike,” Bennett said. “We’ll have to be. We’ll have to be more balanced. Whether it’s three to five guys that can score between 8 to 12, 14 points a game. I think it’s going to have to be a team like that to be successful this year.

Nolte, a talented 3-point shooter, is most comfortable on the perimeter. That leaves Bennett with three scholarship post players: Mitchell, Tobey and 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins.

“I think if you’re a forward this year or a bigger guy, you’ve got a good chance [to play],” Bennett said. “You’re going to have to be ready to help us.”

Mitchell, one of the team’s most explosive athletes, has gotten stronger and shown the “natural maturity that you see year to year, so that’ll help him,” Bennett said. “I think his game has slowed down. He’s worked real hard on some of his skills, and he’ll be important.

“It’ll be important for him to rebound for us. The way he finished last year, I thought he gave us some nice games, whether it was offensively on the glass, [scoring on] putbacks, or playing good defense. We’ll need that for sure, and hopefully [get] some additional offensive output.”

The Cavaliers are scheduled to play five games in Europe. International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules will be in effect, and that figures to get interesting for Bennett’s players.

In international play, the 3-point arc is 22 feet, 1.75 inches from the basket, not 20-9 as in the NCAA, and a 24-shot clock is used. The court is about 3 feet shorter. A team has only eight seconds to advance the ball past midcourt, and the lane is wider. Players may not call timeouts.

UVa has practiced recently with a 24-second shot clock. In general, though, Bennett hasn’t worried about familiarizing his players with all the international rules.

“We’ve used this time more just to establish some foundational things on offense and defense and try to be ahead of the curve when school starts, in September and October,” Bennett said.

As his players try to adjust to FIBA rules in Europe, there “might be some bumps in the road, but that’s OK,” Bennett said. “This is more about establishing some things.”

The Cavaliers’ greatest challenge, he believes, will be playing with a shot clock 11 seconds shorter than that used in NCAA men’s games.

The 24-second clock makes “you be purposeful, and depending on what you’re doing, you’ve got to be aware of that clock,” Bennett said. “If someone puts pressure on you, and all of the sudden you’re starting your offense with 16 seconds left, that’s usually the red zone in most college games. So it’s a different game. I would prefer 30 seconds, but we’ll adjust to 24.”

On the eve of his team’s departure, Bennett has little idea what to expect from UVa’s opponents in Europe. Virginia is scheduled to play two games against the Netherlands B team, one against the Belgium club team Gembo and two against AMW Team France.

“There’s no scouting report,” Bennett said.

“I don’t know how much zone we’ll see or what the officiating will be like. There are so many variables, but that teaches you to learn how to play on the fly and handle different scenarios. If there’s adversity, we’ll figure out how to adjust.”

Check and for reports from Europe.

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