By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With his aching right ankle encased in a protective boot, Akil Mitchell stood outside the visitors’ locker room at Littlejohn Coliseum last Saturday afternoon.
“This is going to be best week off ever,” a weary Mitchell told reporters after UVa’s 59-44 loss to ACC foe Clemson. “I just have to get my foot up, get my rest, and I’ll be ready to play next Saturday.”
Six days later, Mitchell stood on the court at John Paul Jones Arena, where Virginia (11-5, 1-2) will host Florida State (10-6, 2-1) at 4 o’clock this afternoon. The Cavaliers’ practice had ended a few minutes earlier, and the 6-8 junior pronounced himself ready to take on the Seminoles.
“The three or four days I had after the Clemson game were huge,” Mitchell said Friday afternoon.
Early in the week, Mitchell said, he stayed off the ankle he’d severely sprained Jan. 3 in practice, and “tried to let it heal on his own.” He felt out of sync when he returned to practice Thursday, “but that was just shaking off some of the rust,” he said, and Mitchell felt much more comfortable Friday.
With 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins sidelined indefinitely by a stress reaction in his lower right leg, the Wahoos desperately need a productive Mitchell against a FSU team that, as usual, has a tall, athletic frontcourt. The Seminoles’ roster includes three players listed at 7-foot or taller, and that doesn’t include 6-8 Okaro White, one of the ACC’s most improved players, or 6-8 Terrance Shannon.
Atkins leads UVa in blocked shots. He’s second on the team in rebounding, behind Mitchell, and third in scoring. With Atkins out, 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey and 6-8 freshman Evan Nolte will play more minutes, and Mitchell will carry a heavier load down low.
“At the most basic level, on paper now, I have to play the 5 instead of the 4,” Mitchell said, who’s averaging 12.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. “So I’ve got to guard bigger guys. I’ve got to be more physical. I’ve got to play a lot more in the post.”
When Tobey is in the game, Mitchell will play the 4 — power forward — but “I still have to be the more physical guy out of the two of us and kind of lead in that regard,” Mitchell said. “So it changes a little bit, and this [ankle] injury kind of stifles me a little bit more. But we’ll figure it out, and I’m sure we’ll be fine moving forward.”
Mitchell isn’t the only Cavalier who benefited from the extended break. Starting point guard Jontel Evans missed nine games in November and December with a foot injury. He returned Jan. 6 for the ACC opener and sparkled in Virginia’s 61-52 win over North Carolina, but the 5-11 senior totaled nine turnovers and only four points in the two games that followed, road losses to Wake Forest and Clemson.
“It was kind of flip-flopped,” Evans said Friday. “I thought I would be rusty in the Carolina game but I actually played pretty well. I thought I was going to continue to play well, but these last two games, I’ve been really stinking it up. My play hasn’t been really that good. But this week of practice has been good.I feel like I’m getting my rhythm back and getting that pace that everyone’s used to seeing.”
Evans, who made the ACC’s all-defensive team in 2011-12, had surgery Oct. 2 to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. This has not been the senior season he envisioned, but Evans said he no longer worries about his foot when he’s on the court.
“That’s behind me now,” he said, “and I just want to go out and try to compete the best way I know how.”
Florida State has won seven straight over UVa and leads the series 21-17. The `Hoos haven’t beaten FSU since Feb. 17, 2007, when they prevailed 73-70 at JPJ.
The `Noles “are a very tough team,” Evans said Friday. “They can shoot the ball. Very athletic and very big inside. They defend really well. So they’re a tough team to go against, and they’ve given us problems over the last couple years. But hopefully tomorrow we can end that.”
In its most recent encounter with Florida State, on March 1, 2012, UVa suffered an excruciating loss at JPJ.
The Cavaliers, ranked No. 24 nationally, stormed back from an 11-point deficit and took a 58-47 lead with 4:58 to play after a sequence that led to the ejection of FSU star Bernard James.
But Virginia scored only two more points, on free throws by Evans with 3:01 remaining. The `Hoos turned the ball over four times in the final four minutes, and the No. 22 Seminoles stunned their hosts with a flurry of 3-pointers, including the game-winner by guard Ian Miller with eight-tenths of a second left.
“My boy Ian,” said Mitchell, shaking his head at the memory.
Mitchell and Miller had been AAU teammates in Charlotte, N.C. where their high school teams were rivals. They remain good friends, though for Mitchell and Virginia’s other returning players from last season, the 63-60 loss to the `Noles still stings.
“They just fought back,” Evans said Friday. “They punched us back, and they gained momentum and ended up winning the game. Tomorrow we can’t have that. We gotta sustain momentum throughout the game.”
Miller finished the game with a career-high five 3-pointers. His final trey came over the outstretched hands of UVa guard Sammy Zeglinski.
“That was great defense,” Evans said. “He just hit a tough shot.”