The LSU basketball team heads to the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, Tenn. as the worst team in the league. At 11-19 and 2-14, the Tigers only shot at continuing postseason play is making a miracle four-game run from Thursday through Sunday.
An up-and-down season for senior Tasmin Mitchell, and certainly not what he hoped for when he decided to forgo the NBA Draft and return for his final year.
Yet, trials and tribulations have always found their way into Mitchell’s career. While there were the SEC Championships (2006 and 2009) and the 2006 Final Four run, there were also the three coaching changes, two finishes at the bottom of the conference and a season-ending injury.
“Wow,” Mitchell said of his five seasons. “I have endured a lot here. But, I just remember the good times. I played on some great teams with really good guys.”
The names that Mitchell ran with are all familiar.
He tabs Garrett Temple as one of his closest friends. Mitchell, Temple, Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas all played on the same AAU team. Marcus Thornton, a Baton Rouge native who attended Tara High before heading down the junior college route, grew up on the same courts. St. Martinville’s Darrel Mitchell, a senior during Tasmin’s freshman season, suited up for a rival AAU team.
“I was really close friends with all of those guys, so it was tough seeing them move on,” Mitchell said. “Each guy grasped me like a brother. Then Anthony Randolph came in the year I got hurt. This year, I was the last of the Mohicans. I talked to Baby [Davis], and he tells me it is time to get out of here and come with them.”
Once the season ends, the chatter will pick up on where Mitchell will land in next June’s NBA Draft, where the fifth-year Tiger will finally join Baby and Co.
At 6-foot-7, Mitchell, who returned for a final year with the goal of working on his game at the three position, never grew into the NBA-sized low post talent that he figured he would become back at Denham Springs.
“I thought I would be 7-foot,” he laughed. “I thought I would grow tall and be massive. Then my sophomore year came and people were taller than me.”
No matter, the shot to join a team – even last season – has presented itself.
“I definitely felt like last year I could have made it on an NBA squad somewhere,” Mitchell said.
But, a testament to how much Mitchell loves both the program and its’ head coach, he returned to what he knew would be an undermanned roster.
12 losses piled up before LSU notched a conference win, still Mitchell – the eternal optimist – kept the same demeanor from the first loss to the last.
“Coach [Johnson] talked about adversity, and when it sets in, you have to know how to handle it,” Mitchell said. “I am a verbal leader who is emotional, but I couldn’t deal with it like that. It wasn’t going to help. This year matured me; I kept it within and stayed positive.”
With last Saturday’s 50-48 Senior Night victory over Georgia, the season ended the only way Mitchell would have it. With family and friends in the stands, he sent the Pete Maravich Assembly Center crowd away on one last high note.
Johnson, the proudest coach in the building, was short on words all week when asked what Mitchell’s final game – and imminent departure - meant to the program.
“I have only been around him two years; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be around him for four, or the people who have supported him since high school,” Johnson said. “It will be a long time before you see another guy like him put up these numbers over a four-year period. Three coaching changes and a major injury, and he continued to come out and play.”
The statistics are more than impressive, even though Mitchell is quick to brush them off as unimportant to the bigger picture.
“The main thing is a championship,” he said. “I have had two SEC titles, a Final Four and was first-team All-SEC. At Denham, I had four, 30-win seasons. We made the playoffs each year.”
He will finish his career in the top 10 in at least six statistical categories. Third at LSU in all-time scoring, Mitchell is 21 points shy of 2,000. He set the mark for minutes played, total games played and starts.
Of the accomplishments, what meant the most shouldn’t surprise you.
“Minutes played,” he said. “Every coach that was at LSU trusted me to be on the floor.”
For Johnson, the statistics are the definition of the player that Mitchell evolved into with the program.
“We can all get caught up in No. 23, and sometimes we don’t appreciate a guy like Tasmin Mitchell,” he said. “Ask yourself, how many guys on this team are taller, run faster and jump higher than Tasmin, but they aren’t half the player he is. It is all played between the ears.”