By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2014-15, when incoming freshman Isaiah Wilkins joins veterans Malcolm Brogdon and Evan Nolte in head coach Tony Bennett’s program, the UVa men’s basketball team will have three players from the Atlanta area. For now, no city is better represented in the Cavaliers’ program than Charlotte, N.C.
“If people don’t know where Kannapolis is, I just say Charlotte,” Jones said after practice Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena. “All my life I’ve been playing for my AAU team from Charlotte, and I’m in Charlotte half the time anyway.”
Bennett has ties to the Queen City, too. He spent three seasons in Charlotte as a point guard for the NBA’s Hornets in the early `90s, and met his wife, Laurel, there. Moreover, Virginia’s associate head coach, Ritchie McKay, recently was inducted into the athletic hall of fame at Charlotte’s Queens University, where he was an assistant in 1989-90.
All of which adds more storylines to UVa’s next game. At noon Saturday, No. 25 Virginia (1-1) meets Davidson (0-2) at Time Warner Cable Arena in downtown Charlotte. Bennett tries to schedule games in or near the hometowns of his players, and so a game in Charlotte against a perennially successful opponent such as Davidson was appealing to UVa.
“As soon as it was [announced], I circled it on my calendar,” Mitchell, a 6-8 senior, said Thursday.
The crowd Saturday is expected to include Charlotte Christian coach Shonn Brown and his team, which changed its practice schedule to work around the game, Gill said.
Each UVa player received two tickets for the game, and the guys with Charlotte connections have turned to their teammates and other sources for help.
“I got eight tickets,” Mitchell said. “I only asked for eight, because these two” — Gill and Jones — “needed a whole lot. Hopefully I have more [friends] that will buy tickets.”
Gill said: “I think I have 12 tickets in all, but like 50-some people are coming.”
He smiled. “The Gill family will be rolling deep.”
Jones said: “I got a lot of family coming. I honestly don’t know how many tickets I have right now, but I’ve gotten like 10 phone calls since yesterday about everybody wanting to come.”
And for those whose requests he can’t accommodate? “I just tell `em I love `em,” Jones said, smiling. “I can’t get everybody a ticket, but I’ll try my best.”
Mitchell, who was born in Panama, has relatives in the Washington, D.C., area, but he attended elementary school, middle school and high school in Charlotte, and his parents and his brother, Akim, live there. (Akim attends United Faith Christian Academy, where his basketball coach is Muggsy Bogues, one of Bennett’s former NBA teammates.)
Gill’s hometown loyalties are split. He was born in what he likes to call, as he did once again this week, the “greatest city in the world: High Point, North Carolina.” That’s where his mother lives. His father lives in Charlotte, and that’s where Gill spent his high school years.
He was a year behind Mitchell at Charlotte Christian. Jones, who was in the same grade as Gill, attended A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis. A.L. Brown didn’t play Charlotte Christian during his high school career, Jones said, but he has played with and against Gill on the AAU circuit.
Gill and Mitchell have played at Time Warner Cable Arena, the 20,000-seat home of the NBA’s Bobcats. Gill was a sophomore and Mitchell a junior at Charlotte Christian, whose opponent that day was national power Oak Hill Academy from Southwest Virginia.
“We lost by six or something like that, but it was a great atmosphere,” Gill recalled Thursday.
Virginia is coming off a painful loss to No. 14 VCU. Before a near-capacity crowd at JPJ, the Wahoos led by seven with 6:45 left and by six four minutes later Tuesday night. The Rams, however, rallied and won 59-56 on a 25-footer by Treveon Graham with 1.4 seconds left.
Gill sat out last season after transferring to UVa from South Carolina. Foul trouble limited him to 16 minutes Tuesday night. A 6-8 redshirt sophomore who started alongside Mitchell, Gill finished with four rebounds and one steal. He didn’t attempt a shot from the floor or a free throw.
“That game against VCU was really tough,” Gill said. “To sit there on the bench and watch, it reminded me of last year a lot of the time, but I’m eager to get back out there.”
So is Mitchell, and not only because the game is in Charlotte.
“More so because of the way things went the other night,” said Mitchell, who totaled nine points, two rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots in 29 minutes against VCU.
“It helps that it’s back at home and it’s in front of your family and friends, but I’m just ready for us to get back on the floor and prove ourselves.”
Jones was the second guard off the bench against VCU. He missed his only shot from the floor — Jones was 1 for 2 from the line — but helped slow the Rams’ super-quick guards in his nine-minute appearance.
His role will “change, defending on the opponent,” Jones said. “I just know I’m going to be called on for defense, so that’s what I’m focusing on right now. Whatever Coach Bennett throws at me, I’m to take advantage of it and make the most of it.”
In recent years, homecoming games have brought mixed results for UVa players. Joe Harris, who’s from Chelan, Wash., scored 14 points in a December 2011 win at Seattle. But Brogdon and Nolte struggled at Georgia Tech in 2011-12 and 2012-13, respectively, and Paul Jesperson (Merrill, Wis.) failed to score last November in UVa’s win at Wisconsin.
Mitchell, who flew to Charlotte last month with Bennett and Harris to represent Virginia at ACC media day, knows he’ll have more than usual to deal with Saturday. He’s confident he can handle it.
“You just get so jittery, so excited, because you know so much of your family’s there and watching, and you want to make everybody proud,” Mitchell said. “But at the end of the day, once you get on the floor, everything kind of blocks itself out.”