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Charlotte’s Akil Mitchell has been slam dunk for No. 1 seed Virginia

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for more than 20 years and has been at the paper for more than 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

RALEIGH Virginia senior Akil Mitchell is versatile. He made the ACC’s all-defensive team, averages a team high 7.1 rebounds and helped convince former Charlotte Christian teammate Anthony Gill to join him in Charlottesville, Va.

Look for Mitchell and Gill Friday night when the Cavaliers, the top seed in the East, open the NCAA men’s basketball tournament against Coastal Carolina. The Cavaliers and Chanticleers play at PNC Arena at 9:25 p.m.

Charlotte Bobcats’ color commentator Dell Curry will watch.

“You always watch when you have a horse in the race,” Curry says.

Curry’s sons, Stephen and Seth, played at Charlotte Christian. When Mitchell was a 6-foot-5 sophomore, Seth would get on him because he couldn’t dunk. Mitchell says he was tall enough. He just couldn’t get up in the air.

Before his junior year Mitchell grew two inches and realized he was an athlete. You know this if you saw him block the shot of Duke freshman and future NBA star Jabari Parker early in the ACC championship Sunday. Mitchell also grabbed 15 rebounds in Virginia’s 72-63 victory.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett, the former Charlotte Hornets’ reserve point guard, offered Mitchell his final scholarship. Lightly recruited, Mitchell envisioned himself as a high-flying, high-scoring, three-point shooting wing. Bennett envisioned Mitchell as an inside player who would do the things nobody wants to do.

As has been the case in Bennett’s five seasons at Virginia, the coach was right. Mitchell, a 6-8 and 235-pound senior, averaged seven points per game this season.

Wouldn’t you love to shoot from the outside and go for 40 points?

“Of course,” Mitchell says Thursday with a laugh in his team’s crowded locker room at PNC Arena. “Anybody would. But it’s about the wins.”

Everybody on the roster sacrifices to the system. What was the appeal?

“This is such a great academic school,” Mitchell says. “And growing up in the backyard of the ACC, I wanted to play in the conference and it was a chance to help turn a program around.”

When Mitchell was a freshman the Cavaliers won 16 games. Since then they’ve won 22, 23 and, this season, so far, 28.

“He guards, he screens, he runs the floor,” Bennett says. “He does all the tough things and he’s really improved his game and given us that dimension that may not be statistical, but he changes the games in so many ways.

“Again, I’ve seen him really be a leader. He’s just a great young man.”

Mitchell used the Charlotte Christian connection to help woo Gill to Virginia.

Gill played his freshman year at South Carolina, averaging 7.6 points and 4.7 rebounds. When Darrin Horn, the coach that recruited him, was fired in 2012, Gill transferred. The Gamecocks had lost last season. They were going to lose next season. Charlotte Christian players are not accustomed to losing.

North Carolina recruited him and so did Ohio State. Gill, a sophomore, is 6-8 and 230 pounds.

“We obviously saw how good he was his senior year in high school and were all over him,” says Bennett. “Akil knows him well. There were a lot of connections there.”

Adds Bennett: Gill “brings another dimension to our team that we didn’t have. Just his ability to draw fouls, get to the line, he can score.”

Gill averages 8.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and shoots 58.7% from the field. Like Mitchell, he is versatile. He is adept at alleviating boredom. He told a reporter that he had a Siamese cat with two heads.

He doesn’t. Neither do you.

“Virginia has a system and I wanted to be part of it,” Gill says. “I wanted to get a lot better on defense and challenge myself. They were right on the verge. They had all the pieces.”

Gill grew up in High Point. His parents divorced when he was 12 and his dad moved to Charlotte. Charlotte offered better basketball competition. Not wanting to be away from his mom or dad, he spent time in both cities.

“Akil and Anthony are perfect for Tony Bennett’s system,”DellCurry says. “One, they’re good kids from good families. Two, they’re high character. And three, they have the work ethic on the court and in the classroom.”

Curry and Bennett were Hornets’ teammates. Bennett backed up Muggsy Bogues.

“He was always studying basketball,” Curry says of Bennett. “His dad was a coach and he wanted to learn everything he could about the game.”

As nicely as possible Curry says: “With his skill-set I think he knew he wouldn’t be in the NBA long.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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