COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Dec. 17 is supposed to be the big day.
After a frustrating year spent in limbo, that’s when blue-chip recruit Tony Mitchell is expected to become academically eligible for North Texas and finally be able to put on a college uniform.
After five consecutive seasons of at least 20 wins for the Mean Green, the addition of the 6-foot-8 ex-Missouri signee from Dallas would be a real boon for a Sun Belt school unaccustomed to landing talent that ESPN ranks in its top 25.
For Mitchell, the turning point came amid news reports centering on a spotty educational record that turned his college career into a dream deferred. He tuned out the talk of his shortcomings and went to work.
“I was on the news like every week,” Mitchell recalled last month after a workout at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. “I was like, ‘What’s going on?’
“It’s motivation. They can say what they want to say.”
Displaying his ability as a strong and versatile power forward has never been an issue for Mitchell. After a year away from organized competition, he not only made the USA Basketball under-19 team that competed at the world championships but also led the Americans in rebounding (7.6) and blocked shots (1.8) during the tournament in Latvia.
Where Mitchell needed to improve was in the classroom, and he appears to have done so since enrolling at North Texas in January shortly after the NCAA had ruled him a nonqualifier with Missouri. He’s done enough academically to the point where both he and UNT coach Johnny Jones are confident he’ll be eligible to play in December.
“He was extremely strong in his studies in the first semester he was here, and he’s off to a great start in the summer,” Jones said. “There are no indications I should believe he wouldn’t be available.
“He’s very focused and very determined. I don’t think he’d let anything get in the way after what happened.”
Mitchell’s college debut was delayed after he was dealt a series of academic setbacks. The Dallas Independent School District reportedly investigated how testing at Pinkston High had enabled Mitchell to quickly make up for nontransferable academic credits from the Center of Life Academy, a prep school in Miami he previously attended. Also, he wasn’t able to graduate from Pinkston until the summer because he had difficulty passing the state’s exit-level test.
It took months for the NCAA to rule Mitchell ineligible, and he said he became stressed with all the paperwork and phone calls and became withdrawn while sitting at home during the wait. Ultimately, the NCAA announced that it was rejecting Missouri’s appeal and that the school would not further pursue the matter.
“Membership has made it a priority that prospective student-athletes be academically prepared,” Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president of academic and membership affairs, said then in a statement. “The standards are clear and serve as the foundation for the other NCAA academic requirements that must be met once a student-athlete enters college.”
Mitchell’s mother, Angie, broke it to him that he wouldn’t be able to go to Missouri.
“I was really emotional,” said Mitchell, who was told the NCAA would not accept two core classes from the Center of Life Academy. “Throughout the whole thing, it was frustrating. You got to stay humble and fight through it, though.”
Mitchell decided that rather than head to a junior college, he would attend nearby North Texas and sit out a year while working on academic requirements. Jones, who has led North Texas to the NCAA tournament twice in the past four years, had recruited Mitchell before he committed to Missouri.
“It’s already a winning program,” Mitchell said. “I’m just trying to take it to national heights, basically take the program to another level than it’s already at.”
Mitchell, who can neither play nor practice with the Mean Green while sitting out without an athletic scholarship, realized he did have old habits he needed to change. After all, he said the reason he went to Florida to attend prep school in the first place was to try to make up for poor academics.
“Starting off my freshman year of high school, I messed up really bad,” Mitchell said. “I was playing catch-up throughout high school. I was a class clown. Failing, basically.”
“I take my books seriously. Back in the day, I really didn’t care about it. Now I’m on top of my stuff. I’m just doing my work -- studying, writing papers, being a regular college student, putting my books before basketball.
“I learned quickly. My coaches really carried me throughout that time -- how to study, time management.”
Mitchell is relegated to staying in shape in the school’s recreation center, but Jones has been able to help get him acclimated in the college setting off the court.
“He comes by our offices, and it’s about growth,” Jones said. “Be on time. That’s half the battle. Get to where you’re supposed to be. Be reliable.
“The basketball portion will come rather easily for him.”
Jones, who played on a Final Four team at LSU and eventually helped recruit and coach Shaquille O’Neal at his alma mater, believes that Mitchell will become eligible just in time for when the Tigers come to Denton for a rare SEC-visits-Sun Belt battle. Mitchell might be rusty, but he should be raring to go after having played only nine real games in the past year, all for Team USA.
Mitchell said he’s not bitter about the circumstances that cost him a career at Missouri and expects big things to happen at his second-choice school.
So does his new coach.
“We look forward to mid-December,” Jones said. “He’s definitely on track. I’m happy for him and extremely excited for us as well.”