Bob Lutz: Joe Mitchell, Friends have been perfect fit

Friends' Joe Mitchell gets pressured by Tabor defenders on Jan. 22 in Wichita.
Friends' Joe Mitchell gets pressured by Tabor defenders on Jan. 22 in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

I expected Joe Mitchell to lament his experience as a college basketball player because it clearly hasn’t turned out the way he hoped.

I need to learn to expect more.

Mitchell isn’t sorry that he’s winding up his career at the NAIA level, playing for Friends. He’s cherishing every moment and breaking long-standing records along the way.

The 6-foot-1 guard scored 41 points Thursday night, leading the Falcons to a 93-87 KCAC win over McPherson at the Garvey Gym. He’s now averaging 33.3 points and has smashed the Falcons’ single-season scoring record held by Raphael Toney.

The former Southeast and Hutchinson Community College standout, who went to Ohio and became homesick, then transferred to Wichita State and became impatient and left the team. He hooked on with the Falcons during the second semester of the 2012-13 season. He’s done nothing but fill baskets since, scoring at an amazing rate while winning over teammates who might at first have been skeptical about his motives.

“You couldn’t ask for a better teammate,” Friends senior and captain Colton Rausch said. “After he broke the record, he sent out a group text thanking all of his teammates. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had and I’ve been playing basketball for a while.”

Mitchell thought he would be fine at Ohio, a Mid-American Conference school in Athens, after two outstanding seasons playing for Steve Eck at Hutchinson.

But when he got to Ohio, he felt out of place.

“It was a good school,” Mitchell said. “But I got a little homesick. I tried to stick it out but eventually I just wanted to come home.”

Mitchell enrolled at Wichita State before the 2011-12 season, content to sit out a season as a walk-on and pay his own way to college. But with the promise, he thought, of a scholarship.

But there was some confusion, he said, about when a scholarship might be made available. He eventually decided to leave WSU, knowing that he was giving up his dream of playing Division I basketball by doing so. He couldn’t sit out another season so he had to either play at the NAIA level or not at all.

“I got in contact with Coach (Dale Faber) at Friends, talked to him a little bit, and decided to come here,” Mitchell said. “To stay in Wichita.”

And he’s never been sorry.

The crowds aren’t as big. The media coverage isn’t intense. But in a way, Mitchell doesn’t know what he missed by not playing Division I basketball because he never played Division I basketball.

“I was waiting for my moment, my chance to get out there and contribute at Wichita State,” Mitchell said. “And when all of that went down, I felt kind of let down. I didn’t know where I was going to go. I finished the (2012) fall semester at WSU, enrolled at Friends and fortunately (Faber) allowed me on the team.”

It doesn’t take a basketball expert to see that Mitchell has Division I talent. He’s quick, strong and explosive. He can shoot from the perimeter but most loves slashing to the basket and using his strength to draw contact.

He’s shooting nearly 60 percent and if you think he’s a ball hog, consider that Mitchell leads the Falcons in assists. By a big margin.

“Selfish isn’t part of my game,” he said, pointedly. “I’m a very unselfish player. When I get my teammates involved it makes the game go smoother. I get a lot of attention by averaging 33 points per game so a lot of my teammates are open. When they hit shots, everyone gains confidence.”

Friends is 19-5 overall, 10-3 in the KCAC. The Falcons aren’t the Joe Mitchell Show.

But he is the big name on the marquee.

“I’d be lying if I told you I’ve ever had a player like him,” Faber said. “He scores in bunches. He’s No. 1 in the nation in scoring. From the beginning of workouts until today, it’s been about winning for him.”

Faber wondered what adding Mitchell late last season would do to the Falcons’ chemistry. He ultimately decided the talent was worth the risk.

“There hasn’t been a glitch,” Faber said. “I think Joe embraces the fact that he gets to play in his hometown. Family and friends are getting a chance to see him perform.”

Mitchell said being at Friends was never a blow to his pride.

“Even though I went to Division I schools, I didn’t ever play so I never really proved myself at that level,” he said. “I embrace getting to play basketball at Friends. I try to lead my team the best way I know how. I’d be satisfied to average 12 points per game if we were still winning.”

Mitchell has professional aspirations, although he admits he’s not sure how to find the path that would lead to those opportunities. He said he’ll worry about that after the Friends season, one he said he cherishes.

“I love the game of basketball at any level,” Mitchell said. “I never get bored with it. I love being around it. This is what I love to do. I love playing basketball.”