Somewhere, lost or at least overshadowed in the madness of Virginia’s upset of No. 3 Duke on Thursday night, was another solid performance by one of the ACC’s most unheralded players, Akil Mitchell.
Amidst all the court rushing, Krzyzewski complaining, and Joe Harris sending the John Paul Jones Arena scoreboard into gyrations with his Pop-A-Shot 36 points, Mitchell played a key role in the 73-68 upset.
While most of the conversation was about Harris, all Mitchell did was score 19 points, snatch 12 rebounds and helped shut down Duke’s candidate for conference player of the year honors, center Mason Plumlee. The Blue Devil big man, a potential NBA lottery pick, was held to but 10 points and seven rebounds in 40 minutes.
Giving away pounds and inches, Mitchell combated Plumlee’s size advantage with his athleticism and quickness, particularly on offensive moves and rebounds. Defensively, Mitchell used fundamental positioning and a little help from Justin Anderson on double-teams that Duke didn’t adjust to very well.
“I was trying to limit [Plumlee’s] post touches,” said the 6-foot-8 UVa junior. “He wasn’t trying to post deep. I think the post trap kind of threw him off a bit.”
One gets the feeling that Mitchell has a red circle around every Tobacco Road opponent on Virginia’s schedule, sort of a personal thing as in trying to prove a point. None of the Carolina schools gave Mitchell of a look when he attended Charlotte (N.C.) Christian Academy, the same place as the fabled Curry brothers.
The Cavaliers took a chance on the youngster, especially after UVa associate head coach Ritchie McKay took a long look at Mitchell. Many recruiting analysts and observers believed then that by Mitchell’s junior year, he might contribute.
Mitchell ranks statistically as the ACC’s third-most improved player this season, particularly in the scoring column, where he has raised his average from 4.1 points per game a year ago to 12.6 today, a net improvement of 8.5, slightly behind Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo and Virginia Tech’s Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer.
Fourth in the conference in rebounding, only two other players have more double-doubles this season.
Intangibly, he’s even more improved and gives Tony Bennett’s young team much-needed leadership and a bit of the necessary swagger to run with the big dogs in the league. He should be a candidate for the All-ACC Defensive squad.
“Akil’s got a little swag,” critiqued UVa teammate Jontel Evans. “Sometimes we have to tell him to calm down.”
The one thing fans notice most about Mitchell is his ready smile, the same one he was wearing during post-game celebrations Thursday night when he was smothered in a sea of orange-clad Wahoo fans.
“It was a crazy experience, but so much fun,” said Mitchell, losing his voice from a frantic night on the court and whooping it up afterward. “Me and [teammate] Thomas Rogers had to link arms and move a couple of people out of the way to get out of there.”
His 19/12 performance was his ninth double-double of the season (10th career), and the 19 points were an ACC career high. His dozen boards tied his ACC career high and his nine free throws, each one of them immensely important, were a career high.
There was a time in his career, actually most of his career, where Mitchell making nine free throws in a game was nearly unthinkable. He was scarcely a .500 foul shooter his first two years in the program. Against the Blue Devils, he connected on 9-of-10 attempts.
“I feel a lot more confident with my shooting stroke now,” Mitchell said afterward.
He credited Duke’s Seth Curry for a little extra motivation. The two played together for one year at Charlotte Christian, so there was some banter back-and-forth throughout the evening.
“I’ll give a shout out to Seth, who was talking a little trash at the free throw line,” Mitchell grinned. “There was one point where I hadn’t hit the rim [all swishes] and I was talking trash to him … and then I hit four more, so I was talking, too. Seth gave me a little motivation.”
Doesn’t seem Mitchell needs much of that. He came to Charlottesville equipped with plenty of motivation. Several critics didn’t think he belonged in the ACC, that if anything, he would be a late bloomer.
While Mitchell arrived as more of a wing shooting forward, he’s developed into more of an athletic but more physical power forward that has had to play out of position much of this season. For around a month, he’s been UVa’s lone big man due to the shin injury to fellow forward Darion Atkins and seven-foot freshman center Mike Tobey’s bout with mono. Mitchell never complained, often giving up size advantages to opponents, but rather focused on his strengths.
“He’s so active … his quickness and his nose for the ball,” said UVa’s Bennett after the win over Duke. “That was the best I’ve seen him. He made a big difference on the ball screens. He’s really improving and you can see it.”
Even when Mitchell’s strong performance was brought up to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on Thursday night, he acknowledged Mitchell before steering the conversation back to Harris’ 36 points.
“He’s real good. He plays with poise and athleticism,” Coach K said. “He’s a good player, but the key to their team is Harris. Harris is a big time player and an amazing competitor.”
That’s OK. Mitchell is accustomed to being overlooked.
He lets the scoreboard do his talking.