After shaking off the criticism and rust, Duke men's basketball's Mitchell is ready to make his Mark on the rivalry

<p>Mark Mitchell backs down a Clemson defender during Duke's Saturday victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.</p>

Mark Mitchell backs down a Clemson defender during Duke's Saturday victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It was all over social media.

Then-freshman forward Mark Mitchell, clad in black and blue, waved goodbye to the North Carolina fans after Duke swept the series against its Tobacco Road rivals. Celebrating a 62-57 victory in enemy territory to close the regular season, the Blue Devils were on top of the world.

At that moment, the Kansas City, Kan., native was in peak form. Averaging 9.1 points and 4.5 rebounds while going 35.2% from three, Mitchell was largely heralded as the “glue guy” on head coach Jon Scheyer’s inaugural roster. His offensive contributions and defensive excellence while matching up against the opponent’s toughest players made him a threat worthy of recognition on any scouting report. When the forward couldn’t play during his team’s second-round NCAA tournament clash with Tennessee, his absence was arguably the biggest factor in the loss. 

Coming back for his second season in Durham, the excitement about what the Sunrise Christian product could provide for Duke was palpable. A stable veteran presence along with classmates Kyle Filipowski and Tyrese Proctor as well as senior Jeremy Roach, Mitchell was slated to continue his glue-guy role.

But he developed a condition in his second year of collegiate basketball: the age-old sophomore slump.

From the minute he made his debut against Arizona Nov. 10 after missing the season opener due to a lower-body injury, there was something different and uncertain about the Mitchell who stepped onto the court. Jumpers started to hit off the rim, paint points came sporadically and threes were nearly non-existent. In his rollercoaster of a season, a 20-point game was followed by two six-point performances. To all the world, Mitchell looked like a player caught in his own head.

Then came the social media criticism. As Mitchell struggled on the court, he was disparaged off it and his detractors came out in droves. All of a sudden, he found himself on the negative side of Duke basketball fandom. With millions of eyes come millions of opinions, and the sophomore unwittingly gave them a target.

Fans were quick to jump on Mitchell’s 3-point shooting first. After making a single triple against Bucknell Nov. 17, the forward went ice-cold from beyond the arc, going 0-for-15 in a nine-game stretch. X was ablaze with comments due to his silence from three, with @Besvinick saying, “Literally scream, ‘No!’ at my TV every time he shoots outside of the paint.” @TheBenSwain poked fun at the sophomore’s downfall with a meme of two devils on a person’s shoulder, with the caption, “Mark Mitchell’s thought process whenever he gets the ball on the perimeter.”

The criticism began to spiral from there, as fans harped on the downswing in the veteran’s performances. During the Blue Devils’ Nov. 29 loss at Arkansas, @pinto479 tweeted, “Mark Mitchell there’s a reason why you’re always open.” Days later, @BrotherhoodCBB simply said, “Mark Mitchell cannot dribble.”

In the midst of the disparagement, one individual never faltered in his unwavering support of Mitchell — Scheyer. Even as the forward struggled, his coach found ways to sing his praises.

“Mark didn’t finish as much,” Scheyer said after Duke’s win Dec. 12 against Hofstra. “But Mark had some great moments, he’s so close to having some big games and he’s right there.”

Despite his coach’s support, the remarks only worsened with Mitchell’s cold streak, and doubts began to grow about his contributions to this year’s team and his viability as a future professional. Some even doubted the sophomore’s commitment to the team. @RoyalPanth3895 tweeted, “Duke should just take mark mitchell scholarship away he is not dependable every big game he either claims to be hurt or just doesn’t play well he plays in easy games but tough games he finds a way to not show up.” 

There was one person’s criticism, however, that caught the attention of the entire college basketball world: Mitchell’s own father.

On New Year’s Eve, a day after Duke’s 106-69 win against Queens, Mark Mitchell Sr. posted on X and said, “We as a family do not support what we’re seeing from Mark at Duke. How do you show up at a university and lose your identity? Both Mark and Duke need to work it out. Disturbing.”

With that one tweet from his father, Mitchell flipped a switch. He showed up to prove the critics wrong.

Two days later, in the Blue Devils’ first contest of the year against Syracuse, the Mitchell that Duke fans became accustomed to seeing last season stepped onto the hardwood and put on the performance of a lifetime. He was practically on fire, scoring a career-high 21 points, 18 in the first half alone.

“I just thought he had a really good overall game,” Scheyer said postgame. “There’s a lot of criticism and all that, but I think Mark has really just stayed the course.”

But Mitchell wasn’t done. In the following contest at Notre Dame, the sophomore was ready to break records again and put an exclamation point on his response to his critics. Putting up a new career-high 23 points, the forward also posted 14 rebounds en route to a masterful performance. Most impressive of all, he finally ended his long-range drought and converted both of his attempts from beyond the arc.

“Let me just tell you how proud I am of him,” Scheyer said after the clash with the Fighting Irish. “He’s been working his butt off consistently. He’s been really decisive and playing more confidently.”

“I didn’t let it get to me,” Mitchell added when asked about the two triples postgame. “I’ve been in my head. I’ve been shooting the ball my whole life, and I knew the time was gonna come.”

While Mitchell is not putting up 20-point performances like these every night, his admirable ability to ignore the outside criticism demonstrates his perseverance and fight as a player. It is perhaps what he proves with his absence that displays how essential he is to this Duke team.

After sustaining an injury prior to the Blue Devils’ Jan. 13 rematch with Georgia Tech, Mitchell’s absence was acutely felt. In a close 84-79 brush with the Yellow Jackets followed by a disheartening 80-76 defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh, the forward left a gaping hole in the Blue Devils’ lineup, not just in offensive production but in defensive tenacity, too.

“Does it change our team not having Jeremy [Roach] and Mark in there? Of course it does,” Scheyer said after the loss to the Panthers. 

Without Mitchell, Duke was severely impacted on the defensive end of the floor. The one bright side? Social media took note. 

Where before he received criticism, Mitchell was lauded for what he brings to the Blue Devils. @mrncaggie04 said, “This game [against Georgia Tech] proves Mark Mitchell’s importance more than anything,” while @SwaginTha865 tweeted, “Yeah Mark Mitchell is the most important player on this Duke team court’s adjourned!”

As Mitchell works his way back to health, he continues to prove his utility. In his first contest post-injury at Louisville, the sophomore put on a show. Scoring 20 points and tallying 12 rebounds, he reminded the entire fandom that his presence at Duke is irreplaceable.

Will Mitchell put up 20-point monster performances every game? Probably not. But is he essential to this Duke team? Without a doubt.

Editor’s note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle’s 2023-24 Duke men’s basketball rivalry edition. To read more, click here.

Mackenzie Sheehy profile
Mackenzie Sheehy | Blue Zone editor

Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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