Thinking about Tony Mitchell’s legacy

North Texas men's basketball head coach Tony Benford, sophomore forward Tony Mitchell and Mitchell's mother Angie Mitchel sit at a table at a press conference at Apogee Stadium on Wednesday, when Tony Mitchell announced his decision to declare for the NBA draft. (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

One could sense the excitement among UNT’s fans, coaches, players — heck, just about anyone with an interest in the university — a couple of years ago when the news came down that Tony Mitchell was enrolling at the school.

And why not?

Former UNT head coach Johnny Jones put forth a pretty good argument that Mitchell was the most highly regarded player to commit to playing for the Mean Green ever in anything.

There will be some people who will argue for some of the stars of decades ago, but Jones was probably right. No one had the credentials Mitchell had as a member of the U.S. national team and as a consensus top 20 prospect nationally.

Throw in the fact that Mitchell plays men’s basketball (only football has a higher profile) and the addition of Mitchell was huge news.

Mitchell stuck around just two years and essentially played one and a half.

The question now is what is Mitchell’s legacy?

Mitchell set the school’s single-season (87) and career records (157) for blocked shots. He was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year and a second-team All-Sun Belt pick this year.

The expectation was that Mitchell would be the Sun Belt Player of the Year this season and lead UNT to the NCAA tournament. People expected him to dominate.

Like Mitchell said yesterday. It just didn’t work out.

Jones left to take over at LSU, UNT suffered through a series of injuries and the Mean Green finished 12-20.

Mitchell never led UNT to the NCAA tournament and never really dominated like people expected he would.

There are dozens of reasons that might have been the case. UNT didn’t have the players around him this year, not after Brandan Walton, Jacob Holmen and Justin Patton were lost for the year with injuries. The fact that Jones and key assistant Shawn Forrest, one of Mitchell’s mentors, left in the off-season didn’t help either. The adjustment to a new coaching staff under Tony Benford didn’t go as well as it could have. Benford kept everyone in the fold and eligible and deserves a lot of credit for that, but UNT never lived up to expectations.

Roger Franklin said it was never in Mitchell’s personality to be a lead offensive player.

Despite those factors, it’s hard to not look back at the Mitchell era as an opportunity UNT missed.

UNT didn’t close out Western Kentucky when it was up 13 last year in the Sun Belt tournament final and didn’t get out of the first round of this season’s tournament.

Mitchell had great moments individually at times, but struggled at others.

The bottom line is despite being up-and-down, he averaged 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds a game this year. Few players in the league were more productive.

Benford believes that when Mitchell gets into pre-draft workouts, he will soar up the draft boards, and he’s probably right. Mitchell has a terrific skill set and off-the-charts athleticism.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Mitchell is taken in the first round. Even if he isn’t, there is a good chance he will go on to have a successful NBA career.

That alone could help change the perception of UNT basketball. If Mitchell shows up on TV as a UNT product night after night, no one will remember that he didn’t lead UNT to the NCAA tournament.

Rick Villarreal talked yesterday about the way in which Mitchell represented the university with class. That is something I will remember as well. Mitchell was always polite and almost always willing to talk.

He dove into university life, joined a fraternity and seemed like a regular student.

Mitchell handled himself well considering the attention he garnered. He was under a ton of pressure to be great for UNT.

He might not have lived up to some people’s expectations — or even his own — but he handled the pressure well and brought UNT a ton of attention. Mitchell was in Sports Illustrated and on the cover of Basketball Times.

That is the type of attention UNT has rarely received.

UNT has not had a player drafted since John Horrocks in 1984.

Mitchell will likely break that streak.

It’s all a part of a great legacy Mitchell will leave at UNT. It wasn’t the legacy he had hoped for when he arrived in Denton, but it is one that Mitchell can be proud of.

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