Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare walked into Comcast Center late Tuesday night, while the Maryland women’s basketball team giggled and strutted through its first Maryland Madness dance practice. The hip-hop cranked up and the players learned their new moves. A small child darted between them, so sometimes the Terrapins stopped to chase him, too. And high above, Mitchell and Cleare started running stairs.
Cleare plugged headphones into his ears and took the lead. Mitchell was behind him, shirtless. Their feet chopped up the aisles, touching every stair. They climbed fast into the tunnels, catching their breath beneath the glowing exit signs. Then they walked down the same aisle, trudged across the first row and sprinted up another one.
When Mitchell arrived in College Park last summer, he was stunned by the proposition of losing weight. His baby fat needed to go and his eating habits needed to change. At his freshman year media day, Mitchell lamented missing out on his mother’s famous Georgia cooking, high in carbs and fat but low on the nutritional value Coach Mark Turgeon so rigidly demands from his players. A lack of minutes during nonconference play sank Mitchell into a self-perpetuating cycle, where he gained weight and thus played less. At one point he called home in tears, frustrated over the poundage he couldn’t quite seem to shed.
“He wasn’t playing minutes, we weren’t doing the extra conditioning which he needs, he was probably eating a couple pizzas at night that he shouldn’t have been eating,” Turgeon said at the time.
So over Christmas break, Mitchell avoided fried foods and sweets. He texted his meals to director of basketball performance Kyle Tarp daily, and when Mitchell missed a message, punished himself with brutal treadmill workouts. The discipline continued into the offseason. He has trimmed into a relatively lean 260 pounds, the same weight listed last year, but now packed with muscle instead of fat.
“It hasn’t been a struggle like last year,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “I can tell you that. Coming in last year, I had to get in shape, lose all that weight and this year, it was all detail offensive and defensive, I’ve just been a better person on the court. I know the basics of basketball, but I came in as a freshman and played to the best of my ability.”
For a time, Mitchell was Maryland’s most consistently successful freshman. He ranked among the nation’s leaders in offensive rebounding percentage and had three double-doubles in his first 12 games, as many as Alex Len. His 19-point, 14-rebound explosion against Delaware State came as Mitchell’s playing weight plummeted and his conditioning peaked, and he finished the season averaging 5.5 points on 51.1 percent shooting in 15.7 minutes per game.
A crafty forward with an endless motor, Mitchell’s best attributes are revealed on the glass, where he becomes a hounding pest outworking centers five inches taller. With wings like Dez Wells, Jake Layman, Evan Smotrycz and Nick Faust figuring to handle the bulk of Maryland’s scoring load, Turgeon needs more of the same from Mitchell: a janitorial service delivered to Comcast Center every night, mopping up missed shots and making them sparkle.
“Wherever coach want me to fit in,” Mitchell said. “I know my big asset last year was rebounding. Everything that come off the glass, I had to go get it. I have to focus more on my offensive game, score on the low block.”
Mitchell has worked to diversify his post moves, which were mostly limited to surprising defenders with quick spins and hasty layups last season. He and Cleare played few minutes together last season, but Mitchell hopes the old AAU adversaries can torment opposing frontlines, especially with Alex Len now in the NBA.
“That opportunity’s big this year,” Mitchell said. “Coach talked about us playing more together, being on the court, giving us a big physical presence down low. There’s no rebound or basket we can’t touch. We can get our hands on the ball every time.”
Mitchell needed this comfort, not just for his own sanity but for his sister’s too. Just up Interstate 95, Alaysia Mitchell has begun her freshman season at Towson. A 5-foot-10 forward, Alaysia receives visits from Charles every other Sunday, just to check on her progress. He’s proud of Alaysia, and Charles seems himself in her too. Alaysia, he said, has struggled with weight issues like her brother.
“Her first week, she called me crying,” he said. “I said that’s funny, I called my mama crying. She said, ‘I can’t do this no more, I can’t handle 7 a.m. conditioning any more.’ I just bust out laughing.
“Same way I was.”
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