NEW YORK -- Virginia senior Akil Mitchell has become the face of a program on the rise.
That he won't be a part of it beyond this season is of little concern as the Cavaliers get set to face Michigan State in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. Mitchell knows it could be the final game for he and fellow senior Joe Harris. The Spartans (28-8) are a two-point favorite despite being the No. 4 seed against No. 1 seeded Virginia (30-6).
When Mitchell, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward, arrived in Charlottesville in 2010, landing there only after George Washington's coaching staff pulled a scholarship offer during an official visit, he was a raw project, a late bloomer who didn't play competitive basketball for his high school, Charlotte Christian, until his sophomore year.
"It's my last go-around so to keep playing I will for this team," Mitchell said. "And I think they have my back also. It's nice to keep playing. I don't think it's hit me yet."
Mitchell doesn't garner national recognition. Even as a senior his numbers led only to an honorable mention All-ACC selection one year after he was a third-teamer. But he has improved his game every year and defines a Cavaliers team that has branded itself during Bennett's tenure as a hard-nosed, defense-first group. Mitchell, as much as anybody, has bought into that philosophy.
"[Mitchell] guards, he screens, he runs the floor," Bennett said. "He does all the tough things and he's really improved his game and given us that dimension that - maybe not statistical - but he changes the games in so many ways."
Mitchell started just one game his freshman year for a Virginia team that finished 16-15 and didn't qualify for postseason play. The next year he started 15 games and helped the Cavaliers reach the NCAA tournament before being outclassed by Florida in its first game.
Virginia settled for an NIT appearance last year, but that's when Mitchell's game blossomed. He started all 35 games for a 23-win team and led the way with 13.1 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game. That put him in the top 50 among all rebounders in the country. This year that points total has plummeted to 6.9 per game. But he's still averaging 7 rebounds per game.
"He looks like a phenomenal athlete that goes to the offensive glass well," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He's a very good defender, but there's not many guys that aren't good defenders on that team. I think it's illegal. If you play for Virginia, you got to be a good defender."
Mitchell could be tasked with checking Spartans senior forward Adreian Payne, a formidable presence inside at 6-10, 245, who averages 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. But Izzo noted that the Cavaliers use Mitchell's athleticism by having him double team the post. He's able to get across the lane, help a teammate and get back into position. And few are better at fighting through opposing screens to help defuse a potential scoring play. With Mitchell, it is always about the little things.
Mitchell has grown beyond the basketball court, too. A sociology major, he spent this semester as an intern in the office of university president Teresa Sullivan working with the Board of Visitors a few days a week.
"A lot of times guys come into college and they have a tendency where [sports] is all they focus on, that's all their life revolves around," said Harris, Mitchell's fellow senior and the only other remaining player from Bennett's first recruiting class. "There's so much more than that and there's so much more that you can do with being a basketball player. Akil is a testament to that."
And now it's all about to end, whether this weekend in New York or next week in Arlington, Texas at the Final Four – a dream scenario for a program that hasn't been there since 1984. Mitchell and Harris won't be around to see where the six sophomores and freshmen who play critical roles for this Virginia team can take the program in the future. For them, this is the last chance. But they've already left their mark.
"[It's] a reckless abandon that we have to play with," Mitchell said. "Everything's on the line and you can't let it tense you up. You can't let it freeze you up, thinking this could be my last game. You've just got to play as free as possible and know that if you lay it on the line, give it everything you have, what happens, happens."
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