Men’s basketball: Showdown at the Pit

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UNT's Tony Mitchell, left, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum

Huge crowd of NBA executives expected for game between UNT, Mitchell and Lehigh, McCollum

North Texas has hosted myriad groups at basketball games throughout the years, from elementary school students and church organizations to boosters who have their own sections of seats set aside.

UNT will host a seemingly more prestigious group tonight when a gaggle of NBA team executives descend on the Super Pit for the Mean Green’s game against Lehigh that will feature a pair of potential lottery picks in Tony Mitchell and the Mountain Hawks’ C.J. McCollum.

By Wednesday afternoon, 57 NBA scouts and team officials, including six general managers or presidents, had reserved their spots in the green seats in section 120.

“It’s a testament to each team having really good players and is a great opportunity for Tony,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “A lot of general managers will get to see him in person for the first time. We have told Tony he can’t worry about who is in the stands. He has to go out, play hard, run the floor, be aggressive offensively, stay on the floor by not committing silly fouls and have fun.”

There is little doubt that the game represents a big opportunity for Mitchell and McCollum. NBA executives have been in the stands of the Super Pit all season to see Mitchell, a 6-8 forward, and also have been to Bethlehem, Pa., to see McCollum, a 6-3 guard.

The opportunity to see two players who are projected as lottery picks at once is the big draw tonight, when both could be playing in front of one of the biggest and most important audiences of their college careers when it comes to NBA executives.

“Every NBA team will be represented at that game,” one NBA official said on the condition he not be identified. “It’s a real credit to those mid-major programs that develop world-class talent the old-fashioned way.”

There is little doubt both players fit that description.

McCollum leads the nation in scoring with an average of 24.9 points a game, while Mitchell is averaging 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds while ranking 16th nationally with 28 blocked shots.

Both participated in the LeBron James Skills Academy over the summer, an honor reserved for the top 25 players in college basketball.

Mitchell is well aware of the opportunity he has tonight to show what he can do in front of the NBA personnel who will determine how the next few years of his life will unfold, but won’t put too much pressure on himself in UNT’s game against the Mountain Hawks (8-2).

“It’s the same as it was in high school when college coaches came to watch our high school and AAU games,” Mitchell said. “It’s something that we are used to, but it’s not something we think about. We just have to try to win the game.”

There is little doubt it’s a big game for UNT, which has struggled early in the season and is just 5-6.

A win tonight would go a long way toward helping UNT get out of an early funk in what was expected to be a landmark season for a team that returned nearly all of its key players after reaching the Sun Belt Conference tournament final last year.

An athletic department booster bought 3,000 tickets to give away to fans who are expected to pack what seats are left at the Super Pit after NBA officials take up their allotment for the final game UNT will play before its Christmas break.

Those fans will see two players who couldn’t more different outside of their ability, but have had a similar impact on their schools and basketball programs.

 

A rise to prominence

McCollum introduced himself to the country last season in the NCAA tournament when he led Lehigh to a landmark upset of Duke.

McCollum scored 30 points to guide the Mountain Hawks, a huge underdog as a No. 15 seed, to a 75-70 win over the Blue Devils.

The performance elevated the Canton, Ohio, native, who already was a top player, into the spotlight. McCollum hasn’t disappointed since.

“There has been a lot of media attention, and scouts have been coming to see me,” McCollum said. “I’m enjoying it and trying to take advantage of each of the opportunities I get.”

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of McCollum’s story is that he wasn’t an elite national prospect coming out of high school the way Mitchell was when he graduated from Dallas Pinkston.

“I wasn’t highly recruited at all and had a lot of low-major schools interested,” McCollum said. “Lehigh was a great fit. I fell in love with the coaches and the atmosphere at the school.”

Mitchell’s path to UNT has become a part of program lore.

Mitchell committed to Missouri but didn’t meet NCAA standards to qualify for a scholarship and enrolled at UNT.

What the players share is their impact on programs that don’t often find themselves in the national spotlight while competing in mid-major conferences — UNT in the Sun Belt and Lehigh in the Patriot League.

Mitchell was featured in Sports Illustrated and has elevated the attention UNT has received nationally. The same can be said of McCollum and his impact on Lehigh.

“It has given us a wonderful opportunity because of our success and C.J.’s success to tell the story of our university,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “What he and the team have done has increased the notoriety of the university and built excitement for what we are doing on the floor.”

The question now is how Mitchell and McCollum — and more importantly their teams — will match up tonight.

“I know for sure they won’t keep a subset score, even though it is a great individual matchup,” Reed said. “There is the natural draw with the NBA talent on the floor, but it is UNT versus Lehigh.”

 

Talent on the floor

UNT fans already are well aware of what Mitchell brings to the floor with his all-around ability to score, rebound and block shots.

But what does McCollum offer?

Mitchell saw McCollum up close over the summer and offered a glowing scouting report.

“He’s a very good player — a shooter and a scorer,” Mitchell said. “We will have our hands full.”

It’s McCollum’s efficiency that impresses Benford. McCollum is shooting 50.9 percent from the floor and a remarkable 51.9 percent from 3-point range. Even though teams are determined to slow him down, McCollum has led Lehigh in scoring in all but one of its games this season.

“When you look at players and their efficiency, McCollum’s one of the best in the country,” Benford said. “He can really shoot the basketball and create for his teammates. He has scored 2,400 points in three years. That shows you right there.”

Reed had a similarly high opinion of Mitchell.

“He is so dangerous because of his athleticism, his ability to rebound and score,” Reed said. “He has a variety of skills that make him difficult to deal with.”

While Mitchell and McCollum only had a few days to get to know each other this summer, they left the James camp feeling a connection after some battles in practice and a recreational game of paint ball.

Mitchell called McCollum a “really cool dude,” while McCollum said Mitchell seemed like a “good guy.” McCollum said he and Mitchell follow each other on Twitter.

Tonight they will meet again with the NBA world — or at least a chunk of it — watching.

It’s an opportunity both were looking forward to in the days leading up to tonight’s showdown.

“I don’t mind being in this position at all,” McCollum said. “I have worked hard all my life to play in games like this.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .

 


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