UNT men’s basketball look-ahead Part V (the Mitchell factor)

North Texas forward Tony Mitchell hangs on the rim after a dunk in a game against Florida International,this season at the Super Pit (Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton)

We have looked at the plight of the UNT basketball program over the last few days as it comes off a disappointing season before heading to Conference USA. We’ve examined the seniors who will be gone next year, the players who will return, the recruits who are supposed to arrive in the fall and the move to a new league.

And now for the elephant in the room: Will Tony Mitchell return?

I’ve talked to a few people over the last few days about it, and my guess is that he is going to declare for the draft after considering his options over the next few days.

Mitchell had a tremendous freshman season averaging 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds a game while blocking 70 shots. He came very close to declaring for the draft, but decided to return to UNT for another season, largely to mature as a person and a player.

That strategy seemed to be paying off when he had a great summer at the Amare Stoudemire and LeBron James Skill Academies, where he was widely considered one of the top players.

Nothing has gone right for Mitchell since.

Johnny Jones, the coach who took UNT to two NCAA tournaments (equaling the total number of NCAA bids in the entire history of both the UNT men’s and women’s programs combined), left to take over at LSU and was replaced by Tony Benford. UNT struggled with the transition to a new staff and a devastating run of injuries to key players like Brandan Walton, Chris Jones and Jacob Holmen, among others, and stumbled to 12-20.

Mitchell averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds and blocked 70 shots as a freshman when the was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year and a first-team all-league selection. His average dropped to 13.0 points and 8.5 rebounds a year, although he did block 87 shots. He was a second-team All-Sun Belt pick this year.

So, here’s the question — Does he stay or does he go?

Mitchell won’t be a lottery pick. That seems certain. What he will be is a first-round pick.

Don’t think for a minute that once Mitchell gets into pre-draft workouts that his raw ability won’t show through. If he declares, someone will take him in the first round based on his ability to defend and rebound alone.

UNT needed Mitchell to score and score a lot. He was the focal point of every defensive game plan.

He won’t be in the NBA, where he can run the floor, rebound and score in situations where he does not have three guys hanging all over him. And let’s face it, he did have three guys hanging on him all year.

Should a guy with the talent level of Mitchell dominate in the Sun Belt? I can see that argument, but Mitchell isn’t the kind of guy who is going to create his own shot and he never seemed to get the ball in good spots this year. How many times did we see him at the 3-point arc this year and not in the post or the baseline where he could take a mid-range shot or get to the basket on a bounce or two?

Once UNT lost its best shooter in Walton and after that Holmen and then its best guy in terms of creating in Jones, things went south in a hurry.

Is it worth it for Mitchell to come back and try to improve his stock? UNT lost just about every other post player it had heading into next year other than Keith Coleman, who didn’t make the impact the team hoped he might. Will things get better next season in Conference USA, a better league?

That is what Mitchell must consider.

If Mitchell comes back, UNT is instantly a whole lot better.

What will be scary for UNT is if he does leave for the NBA. No matter how one looks at it, Mitchell was remarkably productive last season. He set the school record for blocked shots in a season, ranked fourth in the league in rebounding and 13th in scoring.

There were some people who complained about Mitchell’s lack of intensity and not getting back on defense. Ok, I get that.

But let’s be honest here.

Mitchell is an immense talent and a former five-star recruit.

Those players don’t show up at Sun Belt Conference schools — or Conference USA schools for that matter — very often.

If UNT is going to wait to have a whole team of five-star recruits with perfect academic credentials, no personal problems, no girlfriend issues and motors like Roger Franklin, it’s going to be waiting a long time.

There are guys out there like that.

They all end up at Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Georgetown or another traditional powerhouse.

UNT only landed Mitchell because of academic issues that prevented him from going to Missouri.

UNT really needs Mitchell back next year. Both of the JUCO frontline players who committed to UNT early on have dropped out of school. The Mean Green does have three good high school forwards coming in, but it would be a lot to ask of them to carry the load, especially as UNT moves to a more competitive league.

Mitchell could hold the immediate future of UNT’s basketball program in his hands. You just have to wonder if it is in his best interests to come back for another year after coming back this season turned out so horribly for everyone involved, himself included.

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