Exactly a month ago today, Akil Mitchell seemed a little lost even by his own admission.
The Virginia senior wasn’t quite sure how he had lost is way, but his play for the Cavaliers wasn’t up to his standards. He confessed he had lost touch with who he was as a basketball player but vowed to get it back with a little help from his friends.
From that point onward, Mitchell has been steadily regaining form and much to the dismay of UVa’s most recent opponents, they discovered that he’s b-a-a-a-c-k.
Monday night’s 61-53 win over Maryland revealed the true beauty of the Charlotte native’s game. Mitchell put up a season-high 13 points, added six rebounds, three assists, a steal, and played lockdown defense to help 17th-ranked Virginia streak to its eighth consecutive ACC win of the season.
While those numbers may not be eye-popping to most, they were impressive to his friends: UVa coach Tony Bennett and his Cavalier teammates.
Mitchell connected on 6-of-8 field goal attempts to continue on his shooting tear. Two of them were particularly impressive, one a dunk at the halftime buzzer to bring the Cavaliers to within one point (26-25) of the upset-minded Terps. Another came on a slick, athletic up-and-under move as Virginia began to pull away from the Terps late in the second half. He also gave his team its first lead of the game on back-to-back inside baskets with 6:13 to play in the first half.
His scoring flurry shouldn’t have been a great surprise. Over Virginia’s last four games (four wins in nine days), Mitchell has hit 69 percent of his field goal attempts (18-for-26). He was a key figure in the rare win at Pittsburgh, putting up a double-double and has been solid ever since.
It wasn’t just his scoring and rebounding that helped derail Maryland. He shut down the Terps’ Evan Smotrycz after the 6-foot-8 Michigan transfer scored eight points off three shots in the first 6:12 of the game. Once Mitchell figured out Smotrycz’s game, the Maryland forward didn’t score again, going 3-for-14 for the night (2-for-9 from beyond the arc).
“After a while, Akil did a really good job on [Smotrycz],” Bennett said afterward. “Akil is huge in our defensive system and he uses his versatility well.”
What Bennett meant by that was Mitchell is big enough to guard power forwards and centers, but also athletic enough to go out and defend mobile forwards such as Smotrycz. Or when an opponent like Boston College goes with a four-guard lineup, Mitchell can still hang.
“His ability to go out and guard those guys is significant,” Bennett said. “It may go unseen but it is huge in our defensive system.”
Mitchell said afterward that he realized that Smotrycz was simply catching and shooting, but also knew that the Terp had some quickness.
“He’s pretty crafty and he got me on a couple of quick moves early,” Mitchell said. “I had to readjust. I don’t think I’ve ever guarded him before, so it was kind of a learning curve. I’d take away his shot first, then give him a step and I think I was able to bother him.”
Bother might be an understatement as the Maryland shooter didn’t score the last 33 minutes of the game.
Mitchell did score, however, helping boost Virginia secure its third consecutive 20-win season and an unprecedented six straight victories over Maryland, the first time that’s happened since the series began in 1912.
The senior may have lost his way in late December stretching into early January, but now he’s as familiar with the path to success as a fat man headed to the dessert bar.
“I’m just having fun, man,” Mitchell said with a wide grin. “I’m enjoying playing. I feel like this is a special team. My teammates have my back. My coaches have my back and I’m going out hard every game.”
Beating Maryland was significant. Four ACC wins over a nine-day span, one in Pittsburgh, where few teams ever win, another game in Atlanta, and two at home, was a test. A couple of those games were grinders, where UVa’s depth made a difference and defense was key.
Now, the 20-5 Cavaliers, all alone in second place in the ACC with an 11-1 league record, get a breather. No more games until Saturday at Clemson.
The Tigers, 10-1 at home this season, including a win over Duke, play the same suffocating defensive style as Virginia, so this one predicts to be another one of those grinders.
“We haven’t won down there since I’ve been at Virginia,” said Mitchell of his three previous trips to Tiger Town. “A week off before Clemson will help. It’s tough to win there. They’re a great defensive team. It will be a grind-it-out game.”
Mitchell made it clear though, that the 20 wins mean nothing if Virginia doesn’t finish strong, that the Cavaliers still have a long way to go.
“I know we have better basketball in us,” Mitchell said.
If that’s the case, the Cavaliers have reserved it for the proper time of year.