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UVa. looks for Akil Mitchell to play much larger role

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Virginia’s Akil Mitchell, left, passes the ball while under pressure from Mike Scott during practice at the Century Link Arena in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, March 15, 2012. Virginia plays against Florida on Friday in an NCAA second-round tournament college basketball game. (AP Photo/The Omaha World-Herald/Rebecca S. Gratz) MAGS OUT; ALL NEBRASKA LOCAL BROADCAST TV OUT

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Akil Mitchell’s passport is getting a workout of late thanks to a bit of basketball-related travel.

There was a stop in Poland earlier this summer. He and his Virginia teammates will visit the Netherlands, Belgium and France for a five-game tour over the next week.

And by the time he returns home from his already-productive offseason, he will be even closer to settling into a larger role in the Cavaliers’ frontcourt as a junior after the departure of star Mike Scott.

“I’m not as much of a post scorer as Mike probably was,” Mitchell said last week. “I’ve got a little different game. The scoring will have to come from a lot of different guys. I think that could help us. If one guy’s not having a good night, there could be some other guys who can pick it up. It’ll be an interesting dynamic this year.”

Most of Virginia’s established returnees — Jontel Evans, Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon — are in the backcourt. Evans is the team’s point guard and lone scholarship senior. Harris is the Cavaliers’ top returning scorer.

While coach Tony Bennett indicated Virginia could frequently play with four perimeter players, there is still a need for some size. Mitchell, at 6-foot-8 and 234 pounds, is the most known commodity inside. No other Cavalier frontcourt player who is eligible this season has started a college game.

“He’s definitely stronger, and yet he’s put on weight — the natural maturity that you see year to year, so that will help him,” Bennett said. “I think his game has slowed down. He’s worked real hard on some of his skills that will be important. I think if you’re a forward this year or a bigger guy, you have a good chance and you’re going to need to be ready to help us.”

Bennett is realistic enough to know his latest team will be more balanced than his last. Few ACC players were counted upon to provide as much as Scott did last year, and his creativity and unusually effective mid-range jumper covered up some of Virginia’s shortcomings.

The Cavaliers can’t count on that any longer, which means advances in Mitchell’s offensive production will be particularly welcome.

“I feel like I’ve gotten better overall, especially offensively,” Mitchell said. “I’ve tweaked my shot a little bit more, so I feel a lot more confident at the free throw line and shooting outside. Just slowing down, that extra experience and seeing where I can score and get different things.”

There were hints of that late last season. For the season, he averaged 4.1 points, 4.4 rebounds and 22 minutes, a solid piece in the rotation of a 22-10 team that earned the Cavaliers’ first NCAA tournament berth since 2007.

Those numbers received a nudge when Mitchell took over a starting spot in place of the injured Assane Sene. In 15 starts to close out the year, he averaged 4.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, and recorded his first career double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds) in an ACC quarterfinal loss to N.C. State.

“It’ll be important for him to play well for us, and the way he finished last year, I thought he gave us some nice games, whether it was offensively, on the glass, putbacks, playing good defense,” Bennett said. “We’ll need that for sure as well as some additional offensive output.”

He followed that up with solid play during a six-game tour of Poland with an Athletes in Action team. The latest trip might be even more significant, since seven of the Cavaliers’ 15 eligible players this season are freshmen.

“I think it’ll be big for us going into next year, as young as we are, to get this extra experience before the season starts,” Mitchell said. “We have kind of a head start. It’ll be huge for us to get the young guys assimilated so they already kind of know what to expect.”

About the Author

Patrick Stevens

Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at 64plus4@gmail.com.

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