From the first day he put on a Friends University basketball jersey, Joe Mitchell insisted on one thing, above all else.
No matter what happened, it was never going to be about him. No matter what happened, he was going to put his teammates and his school — and the game — above everything else. In his words and his actions, that was what he lived by.
Wednesday, those credos fell by the wayside as Mitchell, a Wichita native and Southeast High product, was named the NAIA Division II national player of the year.
“What we really wanted the whole season was a national championship, and I’d trade this for that in a heartbeat … I guess I was surprised when I found out,” Mitchell said. “I’m just kind of soaking it in right now. It’s probably going to take a couple of years to really kind of grasp it, but I’m glad it was me … lucky it was me. I’m blessed.”
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Mitchell was anything but lucky this year — the 6-foot-1 senior guard led the nation in scoring at 32.2 points per game and led Friends to its greatest season with a KCAC regular-season title and a run to the NAIA Division II quarterfinals, where the Falcons lost to eventual national champion Indiana Wesleyan and finished the season 27-7.
Mitchell led the KCAC with 4.7 assists, and he averaged 5.1 rebounds. He scored more than 40 points six times, with his season-high of 45 coming in a 111-103 win over Bethany on Feb. 13.
“It wasn’t about him, he never made it about him one time,” Friends coach Dale Faber said. “And that’s a pretty special individual. I know that he has the respect of every single one of his teammates … they completely understand how good the young man is, and how he made a lot of people better around him.”
Mitchell made an initial impression on his teammates before he even stepped on the court via his circuitous route to Friends. He was an All-Jayhawk West player at Hutchinson Community College, signed with Ohio and never played a game before transferring to Wichita State, where he sat out the 2011-2012 season before leaving before every playing a game for the Shockers.
He joined the Falcons just past the midway point of last season after his eligibility was approved by the NAIA.
“He showed up just when we were starting to come together as a team,” Friends senior forward Colton Rausch said. “And we knew how big of a name he was so we were worried about how he’d mesh with the guys that were already here. The moment he showed up, it was all about hard work and about him giving it his all.
“He could’ve been all about himself and still been the star, but from day one he started putting in the hard work and changed our minds almost immediately. It was never about Joe, it was always about us. He always put his teammates first. I felt like (national player of the year) was an easy pick. It had to be him … I definitely wasn’t surprised when I heard.”
Mitchell hopes to sign with an agent and get into some showcase tournaments with an eye toward playing professionally.
“My first objective is to graduate, then to play pro ball, whether it’s in the states or overseas,” Mitchell said. “Winning the award feels really good, to bring it back to Friends, to bring it back to a lot of the guys who’ve played there.”
Bethany senior guard Idris Ibn Idris was named a second team All-American. Southwestern sophomore guard Cameron Clark, Saint Mary freshman guard Grant Greenberg and Ottawa senior guard Julian Rose were all honorable mention picks.