Tony Mitchell steers clear of the what-if game.
Academic issues scuttled his plans of playing basketball at Missouri. He had to wait a year to begin his collegiate career, potentially delaying a big payday for him in the NBA.
Yet, Mitchell talks about having no regrets about how things turned out. The ultra-talented forward and his North Texas teammates visit Omaha to open the season with a Friday night game against Nos. 15 and 16 Creighton.
“I’m tremendously blessed in spite of the setbacks I went through,” Mitchell said by telephone before Tuesday’s practice. “I’m in a great position. My teammates and I are ready to play. We have a lot of talent on this team, and we feel we can compete with any team in the country.
“There has been some frustration, but you just have to keep moving forward. The thing that kept me going was that I never looked at what I was going through but what I was going to.”
Many basketball observers think Mitchell’s destination is NBA stardom. The 6-foot-8 sophomore decided to return to North Texas rather than taking a shot at pro basketball after last season, and he is considered a possible lottery pick in next summer’s draft.
When Mitchell became eligible for the Mean Green last December, his first game drew 21 NBA scouts. A Creighton official said 10 or more scouts are expected Friday to get an early-season read on Mitchell and Doug McDermott, the Bluejays’ 6-8 All-America forward.
The two were teammates two summers ago on the U.S. under-19 national team. Creighton coach Greg McDermott, who followed his son to Lithuania for an international tournament, was impressed with what he saw from Mitchell.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete, maybe the best athlete in the country,” McDermott said. “He’s 6-8 and has tremendous jumping ability. He’s powerful and he’s worked on his skill set to where he’s doing some things off the dribble and he’s making some 3-pointers.
“There is a reason why he is on everyone’s radar. There’s little doubt that he’ll be a first-rounder.”
New North Texas coach Tony Benford called Mitchell the best athlete he’s coached in 21 seasons as a Division I assistant. Benford has seen some pretty good ones in his stops at New Mexico, Arizona State, Nebraska and Marquette.
Benford, an assistant under Doc Sadler at Nebraska from 2006 to 2008, spent the past four seasons in the Big East. Put Mitchell in that conference, Benford said, and he’d be the player of the year.
“The thing I’m impressed with is how hard he plays on both ends of the court,” said Benford, who took over the Mean Green program last spring. “He rebounds, he’s a great shot blocker, he has a good offensive skill set, he can make 3-point field goals.
“On top of it, he might be the most humble, I guess you’d have to say, superstar I’ve been around. He’s always deferring to his teammates. He’s selfless on the court. In fact, I’ve talked to him about being a little less selfless, but he’s a guy that is just a great teammate.”
Mitchell might have had a different set of teammates had things worked out differently. He committed to Missouri out of Dallas Pinkston High School but did not meet NCAA qualifying standards, partly because he attended an unaccredited charter school in Florida as a junior.
When the NCAA turned down his final appeal in the fall of 2010, Mitchell headed for Denton, Texas, where then-North Texas coach Johnny Jones had held a scholarship for him. Mitchell spent the next 12 months getting ahead of his academic issues and became eligible last December.
He played in 23 games, averaging 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds. Only one other freshman — Kentucky’s Anthony Davis — averaged a double-double, and Mitchell became the first freshman since Kansas State’s Michael Beasley in 2007 to record multiple 30-point, 15-rebound games.
Mitchell was the Sun Belt’s freshman of the year and a first-team all-conference pick. Mitchell briefly considered heading to the NBA but decided to return to school to improve his draft stock.
From all indications it’s on the rise, but Mitchell isn’t concerned with that for now.
“We have a chance to do some great things this year,” he said. “We have a lot of talent on this team, and we’re going out every day and doing the things we need to do to get better. We’re excited about what we can accomplish this season.”
North Texas is favored to win the Sun Belt title this year but faces a stern test in its opening game from Creighton, the preseason pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference. An interesting opening-night subplot will be a marquee matchup of two of college basketball’s top players in Mitchell and McDermott.
Mitchell said he’s eager to see his former national team teammate. McDermott, too, is looking forward to squaring off against Mitchell.
“Tony is a really good guy,” McDermott said. “I’m really looking forward to playing him and his team. It’s going to be a really good matchup for our team. It’s going to be a real good test for us, and we definitely have to be ready.”
McDermott has some advice for anyone considering attending Friday’s game.
“They’ll want to come early and watch warmups,” he said, smiling. “They’ll see some pretty crazy dunks from Tony.”
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