They came to Virginia’s men’s basketball program overlooked in their own way.
Junior Akil Mitchell arrived in Charlottesville on the heels of a late growth spurt that turned him from a wing into a post player. As late as this preseason, Coach Tony Bennett figured he could only count on him to score as an offensive rebounder.
Sophomore Darion Atkins, meanwhile, still had memories of being spurned by the prestigious Washington Catholic Athletic Conference because of poor grades. Then he got on Bennett’s bad side and was suspended for the first three games of his freshman season after violating team rules.
But over the course of 13 nonconference games this season, they’ve morphed into the closest thing Virginia (10-3) has to a replacement for former star Mike Scott. Together, Mitchell and Atkins are averaging 21.3 points and 14 rebounds entering Sunday night’s ACC opener against North Carolina (10-3).
More importantly, their success could very well determine the fortunes of an inexperienced Cavaliers squad that enters January needing conference wins because of a lackluster schedule that, as of Saturday, was ranked No. 310 in the country by NCAA tournament bracketologist Jerry Palm.
“When we both aren’t in the game, I feel like, whoever’s out on the floor loses their composure a little bit,” Atkins said this past week.
That the two are succeeding together is in part because of summer workouts in which they had daily one-on-one battles with Scott and former Virginia center Assane Sene at John Paul Jones Arena. Mitchell credits the workouts with helping him develop the sort of face-up game Bennett wasn’t sure he had before this season.
The 6-foot-9 Charlotte native, who is one of just two players remaining from Bennett’s original recruiting class at Virginia, already has five double-doubles and ranks fourth in the ACC in rebounding with 9.2 per game while averaging 13.2 points. Mitchell is also Virginia’s best post defender — the Cavaliers are second in the country in scoring defense — and likely will draw the assignment of slowing down James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina’s leading scorer.
But it’s his mid-range game and soft touch, trademarks from his high school days as a 6-6, three-point-shooting wing, that seem to be a carbon copy of the moves that made Scott an all-ACC first-team selection in 2012.
“I used to guard point guards. I’m serious,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “We needed some extra guys in the post, so I changed my game. I learned a lot from Mike and Assane and those guys and now I’m starting to show I’ve done those things in the past and I think that’s where my diversity is coming from.”
Atkins’s journey to the starting lineup began in 2007, when he was supposed to play in the WCAC for Bishop McNamara. But academic struggles forced him to rededicate himself in the classroom. After getting his act together, Atkins was approached about playing for Landon.
The Clinton native passed a standardized entrance exam and quickly emerged as one of the top prospects in the area at the prestigious Bethesda private school. But he incurred Bennett’s wrath early on during his time at Virginia.
“I had to gain his trust back,” said Atkins, who declined to disclose what exactly led to his suspension last year.
That he has, despite the presence of ballyhooed freshman post players Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte. At 6-8, Atkins has been able to overcome any size disadvantage with a quick jump that Bennett frequently raves about.
It has also allowed him showcase his talents defending the basket and on the offensive glass, which have been particularly useful with senior point guard Jontel Evans still recovering from offseason foot surgery. A member of the all-ACC defensive team last year, Evans has missed nine games, but could return to the lineup Sunday.
If he doesn’t, though, Bennett knows he can count on his two big men.
“You’re seeing Darion and Akil having a very nice stretch of basketball and come into their own,” he said.