What Could Have Been: Tony Mitchell Finds a Home at North Texas
OMAHA, NE -- Tony Mitchell stares at the ceiling of the CenturyLink Center like he's searching for an escape route.
His North Texas team will not tip off against Creighton for another 25 minutes, so he loiters near the free throw line during pregame warm-ups, effortlessly dribbling a basketball back and forth between his legs. His sophomore season has not even technically begun yet, but he already feels the eyes of every human being in the building fixating on him.
Somewhere among the 17,000 fans decked out in dark blue, judgmental scouts from 15 NBA teams sit with pens and notepads. Just beyond the baseline, a security guard whispers to his co-worker to "watch that number 13 tonight." There's a 6-foot-9 kid from Dallas in the building, and nobody wants to miss the show.
"You just gotta live up to the hype," Mitchell says hours earlier, shortly after his team's afternoon shoot-around.
This season-opening game between North Texas and Creighton, two consensus favorites in their respective conferences, will not be televised, even though national writers and columnists have touted Mitchell's matchup against Bluejays' All-American forward Doug McDermott for weeks. This is nothing new to Mitchell or anybody associated with the Sun Belt Conference. It's a league long dominated by Western Kentucky, hidden carefully in the American South and often overlooked in the shadow of the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference.
Eleven seconds into the game, Tony Mitchell fires a mid-range jumper. Off the rim. On the next possession, his three-point attempt rattles out, too. By the first media timeout, Mitchell has zero points.
By the next timeout, Mitchell has seven points, two blocks and two dunks, the product of a four-minute flurry featuring the kind of breathtaking athleticism everybody had eagerly awaited. It started with a steal and dunk in transition, then continued with a block of McDermott, a three-pointer, another swat and, finally, a one-handed putback slam capped off by a loud and intimidating scream in the general direction of Creighton's alumni section.
They say he's a lottery pick in next year's NBA Draft. Top five, maybe. CBS Sports named him a pre-season All-American and called him "the best combination of talent and athleticism playing in college basketball today."
"Being advertised as a basketball player, you just have to live with those expectations," Mitchell said. "When the lights come on, you gotta shine. You gotta perform."
Performance has never been a problem for Mitchell at North Texas. As a freshman in 2011-12, he averaged a double-double. This year, he's the pre-season Sun Belt Player of the Year. It was not difficult to predict this three years ago, when Rivals.com rated Mitchell a five-star prospect and the 12th-best high school player in America.
It's just that all of this wasn't supposed to be happening at North Texas.
"I LOVE THOSE GUYS"
Tony Mitchell signed with Missouri on Nov. 18, 2009, marking the program's most celebrated recruiting coup in perhaps two decades. Coach Mike Anderson, now the head coach at Arkansas, had never inked a five-star prospect before. The Tigers hadn't welcomed a recruit of this caliber since Linas Kleiza signed with Quin Snyder in 2003.
Prior to choosing MU, Mitchell had spent his junior year of high school at Center of Life Christian Academy, a prep school in Florida. That decision alone ultimately altered Mitchell's path. He transferred to Pinkston High School - a part of the Dallas Independent School District - to play his senior year, but Center of Life was unaccredited and his credits did not transfer. School officials at Pinkston then administered placement tests for Mitchell, and he passed all of them.
That is, until an investigation by WFAA-TV in Dallas revealed he had taken an unprecedented nine tests in two days. Red flag. The work of reporter Brett Shipp forced an internal investigation, delaying Mitchell's graduation from high school and eventually leading the NCAA to rule him academically ineligible to compete at Missouri.
Mitchell never stepped foot on MU's campus as a student. Immediately after the ruling, he signed with North Texas and enrolled as a "partial qualifier," which meant he could sit out a season, pay in-state tuition and then join the Mean Green on scholarship as long as he kept his grades afloat.
"I really wanted to be a Tiger," Mitchell said. "I cried about it. I'm not going to lie. I just have to keep moving forward, but at the same time, I love everybody at Mizzou. They showed me a lot of love and support throughout the whole process."
"I love those guys."
So he's found a home in Denton, Tx., located less than an hour from Dallas. It allows his family to see every home game, and his team isn't bad, either. The Mean Green won 18 games a year ago and returned a promising young nucleus this season under first-year head coach Tony Benford, a former Marquette assistant. Coincidentally, Benford recruited Mitchell - as well as several of his other teammates - while working for Buzz Williams at Marquette.
"I'm a hometown kid, so I really enjoy it," Mitchell said. "Since he recruited a lot of us, he's seen a lot of us already. It's crazy how we've come together as a team, and that we're here at North Texas."
Missouri hasn't left his life entirely, though. "Who are they playing this weekend?" he asks after the shoot-around. Then, he rattles off the names of some of the transfers on MU's team this season-- "They're gonna be real good. They got all those new transfers, Keion Bell, Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown." He also still keeps in touch with several MU players, including point guard and fellow Dallas native Phil Pressey. The two have known each other since the beginning of high school.
"That's my guy. We talk every now and then, on and off." Pressey said. "He's doing real well. We live 15 or 20 minutes away from each other, so every time I go home, I see him."
The feeling is mutual.
"Phil and I are very close. Very close," Mitchell said. "I love seeing how he's doing. His game has evolved. Really evolved."
Mitchell's has, too, which begs that irritating but necessary question.
WHAT IF TONY MITCHELL HAD PLAYED AT MISSOURI?
Tony Mitchell smiles as he imagines the possibilities.
"It could have been something special," Mitchell said. "We probably would have been amazing. On ESPN highlights all the time, going up and down. It probably would have been crazy."
Of course, even without Mitchell, Missouri still earned its fair share of ESPN airtime by winning 30 games and capturing a Big 12 Tournament title. That's how Pressey keeps his perspective.
"A 6-foot-9 guy who's freakishly athletic, he can help any team in the country. If we had him, I think we could use him," Pressey said. "But we didn't have him and we still did well."
All season, the Tigers shrugged off the doubters. People said they were too small. Too thin. Not enough depth. A one-man show in the frontcourt with Ricardo Ratliffe. Missouri ignored the critics for 34 games.
Until it got Norfolked in Game 35. Suddenly, a dream season turned into a disaster in the form of an 86-84 loss to 15th-seeded Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans, statistically the heaviest underdog to ever win a tournament game in college basketball history, outrebounded the Tigers by 12. Star center Kyle O'Quinn, a 6-foot-10 behemoth in the middle of the paint, finished with a double-double and scored the go-ahead bucket after grabbing an offensive rebound in the final minute. If only Mitchell and his superhuman leaping ability were there to clean up the glass. On the game's final possession, Phil Pressey misfired on a three-point attempt at the buzzer and then crumpled to the floor.
He crumpled to the floor of the CenturyLink Center. In Omaha. The very arena where seven months later, Mitchell would play the first game of his sophomore season against Creighton on an unseasonably warm night in early November.
As he continues to stretch near the free throw line - just feet from where Pressey missed that shot at the buzzer - the whispers get louder and louder. "That's the kid you want to see," somebody mumbles near press row. When the public address announcer begins to introduce the North Texas starting lineup shortly before tip-off, he calls Mitchell first.
A six-foot-eight forward out of Dallas, Texas. Number thirteen: Tony Mitchell.
There's mostly silence in the arena, followed by a recognizable, undeniable chant from the Creighton student section.