Mitchell a difference-maker for red-hot Trojans

Arkansas-Little Rock big man Makhel Mitchell collects the ball Feb. 29 during the Trojans’ 85-60 victory over the Tennessee State Tigers at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. Mitchell has averaged 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks off the bench since returning to the lineup in January, helping the Trojans earn the Ohio Valley Conference’s regular-season title.
(Photo courtesy of UALR Athletics)
Arkansas-Little Rock big man Makhel Mitchell collects the ball Feb. 29 during the Trojans’ 85-60 victory over the Tennessee State Tigers at the Jack Stephens Center in Little Rock. Mitchell has averaged 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks off the bench since returning to the lineup in January, helping the Trojans earn the Ohio Valley Conference’s regular-season title. (Photo courtesy of UALR Athletics)


The University of Arkansas-Little Rock men's basketball enters the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation.

With a roster made up of mostly newcomers, the Trojans (20-11) have come on strong late in the season and are riding a nine-game winning streak, tied for the fourth-longest current streak in the nation.

Only South Florida (15), James Madison (10) and Tarleton State (10) are riding longer streaks.

Following a disappointing 2022-23 season, Coach Darrell Walker was active recruiting through the transfer portal. Senior 6-10 forward Makhel Mitchell is one of those additions that has paid off for the program in a major way.

Mitchell's college basketball journey has been unconventional to say the least. UALR marks the fourth program the product of Washington, D.C. has played for in his five years in the college ranks. He began his career close to home at the University of Maryland. After one season with the Terrapins, Mitchell moved onto Rhode Island where he found success in a starting role during his two-year tenure with the Rams.

He then decided to head south and enroll at the University of Arkansas. While his basketball journey has taken him across the country, Mitchell has never been alone. At every single stop along the way, his twin brother Makhi was right there alongside him. That wouldn't change when the pair headed to Fayetteville.

Makhel averaged 11.4 points, 10 rebounds and 4.7 blocked shots per game in his lone season with the Razorbacks. Following the season that saw Arkansas reach the Sweet Sixteen, the brothers would make the decision to part ways for the first time in their lives. While Makhi decided to stay with the Razorbacks, Makhel entered the transfer portal one last time.

Not wanting to venture too far away from where his brother was, Makhel was looking for a home in close proximity to Fayetteville.

With Little Rock less than three hours away, Walker jumped at the opportunity to Makhel to the Trojans' roster. There was just one problem: An NCAA rule prohibited players who had transferred two or more times in their careers from being immediately eligible. That put Mitchell's status for this season in limbo.

"I felt bad for him and I felt bad for a whole bunch of kids that was going through all that with the NCAA," Walker said. "We kept him engaged in practice. We had good talks with him, myself and [assistant] Coach [Charles] Baker one-on-one. Just keeping his spirits up and keeping his conditioning up. He was a monster in practice. I saw what he could do on the basketball court."

"Just knowing that me and my brother are only two hours and thirty minutes away, that was the biggest thing," Mitchell said of the decision to come to UALR. "I got to go up there and see [Arkansas play] against Georgia. It was good being back at Bud [Walton Arena]. He came down to support me as well.

"There is no bad blood between Arkansas and us. I still support them and they support me. Obviously, I was very excited to see [Makhi] walk into the building [Feb. 29 against Tennessee State] and it made me want to go hard. It's all love at the end of the day in Arkansas."

After being forced to sit out the first 11 games of the season, Mitchell and the Trojans got the break they needed. On Dec. 13, a federal judge in Charleston, W.Va., ruled against the NCAA's rule that prevented players who have transferred two or more times from being immediately eligible. Just like that, Mitchell was cleared to play.

He made his UALR debut on Dec. 18 at home against Murray State. Unfortunately for Mitchell, there was even more adversity he would have to face. Just minutes into his first appearance on the floor against the Racers, Mitchell injured his shoulder and would leave the game after eight minutes on the floor. He would miss the next three games due to the injury, before returning to action against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Jan. 4.

"Before the shoulder injury, I felt good," Mitchell said. "I thought I was going to kill it, but then the shoulder thing happened and I had to play with one arm. I had to strengthen it back up and get back into my rhythm. That offensive mindset, just being aggressive and helping the team in that aspect as well. I'm capable of doing that, being the most aggressive player on the floor."

He has proven to be more than capable since he entered the lineup in January. He was named second-team All-OVC despite only playing in just 17 games. Mitchell is averaging 9.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 52.4% from the field.

As his conditioning and minutes have increased, so has his production. During the Trojans' current nine-game winning streak, Mitchell has scored in double figures in eight of those games. He has also recorded three double-doubles in that span and blocked five shots in three different games.

While he has continued to come off the bench, Mitchell has averaged over 25 minutes per game during the winning streak and has been on the floor late in games, helping lead the Trojans' improved defensive play. In the past 12 games, UALR has only allowed one opponent (at Lindenwood) to score 70 or more points.

"You see the growth in this basketball team and Makhel makes a big difference out there," Walker said. "Don't underestimate this big guy. There is a reason why we're holding teams in the 60s and he's a big part of it."

With the Trojans set to play in semifinals of the conference tournament Friday, the team needs to win two games in Evansville, Ind., to win the tournament title and clinch a bid into the NCAA Tournament. Mitchell played in the NCAA Tournament last season with the Razorbacks and with all that he has been through this season, it would mean a lot to him to make one more appearance with the Trojans.

"I knew it was going to go like this," Mitchell said. "It was just a matter of when I was going to be able to get on the floor. Coach Walker told me before the season, we put this team together to go far and make a deep run. That was always my goal. Being an older guy, I just try to make what he [Walker] said come to light."


  photo  Arkansas-Little Rock center Makhel Mitchell (left) and Coach Darrell Walker celebrate winning the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season title by cutting down the nets Saturday at the Jack Stephens Center following an 81-43 victory over Tennessee Tech. The Trojans won their last nine regular-season games to secure the title. (Photo courtesy of UALR Athletics)
 
 


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