Clarksville, Ark.-What a difference a year can make.
Just ask University of the Ozarks basketball player Blake Mitchem. Mitchem, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound sophomore forward, has transformed himself from role player to an American Southwest Conference Player of the Year candidate. The Fort Smith, Ark., product started in just three games last season and averaged 5.0 points and 4.0 rebounds. A year later, Mitchem is the leading scorer (21.4) and rebounder (10.8) in the ASC. He has posted 13 double-doubles and has three 30-point games.
Mitchem attributes part of the turn-around to a strict off-season workout program.
“I attribute it in part to the off-season, and in part to the position I came into this year,” said Mitchem. “I had a real strict workout routine during the summer. I ran every day and lifted every other day. I didn’t play as much during the summer, but rather focused on the strength and conditioning aspect. I knew I needed to step up on the court this season. Last year, we had others who scored, but coming into this year I felt like I had to take over their roles. I really wanted to play my role.”
Ozarks’ first-year Head Coach Doug Boxell is glad Mitchem is on his team. He has been the squad’s leading scorer in 17 of the Eagles’ 22 games. Mitchem ranks third in blocks (1.8) and fourth in the ASC in field goal percentage (57.4%). Boxell sees Mitchem’s ability to learn quickly as one reason for his production this season.
“He is a real quick learner,” said Boxell. “When he sees something on film he likes, he will do it the next game. He no doubt has natural talent, but he is stronger and quicker than he looks. Last season, he had a little bit of trouble finishing, but he has improved on that tremendously. His free throw shooting has been excellent. He is starting to come unto his own right now. He is also a great young man and a great team member.”
Mitchem has mostly played inside, but has the ability to step out and shoot a mid-range jumper. That, combined with his length makes him a tough player to guard, according to Boxell.
“His long arms and length causes match-up problems,” said Boxell. “He is able to get the ball up high and finish before people get there. He has a real good first step. He is definitely a force as far as people having to double team him. He can block shots, too.”
He has been a dominant rebounder, especially on the defensive end where he is averaging 7.7 per game. He pulled down 20 boards against Rust College and has recorded 14 or more six times. As for his rebounding prowess, he credits teammate Jerard McGinty.
“Actually, Jerard always takes the stronger guy,” said Mitchem, who is a physical education major. “So I always have an easier chance to rebound. I give him the credit. But rebounding is about both effort and technique. You can block out all day long and not get a rebound. You have to have that second effort and know when to go for the ball.”
Boxell has seen plenty of good rebounders during his coaching career and believes Mitchem has a knack for it.
“Some kids have a knack for it and some don’t.” said Boxell. “He works hard and gets good position for the rebound. He does have good timing. A lot of it is timing and desire to go get the ball.”
Mitchem, who has twice earned ASC Player of the Week and D3Hoops.com Team of the Week honors this season, has been motivated by his coach’s demands.
“Coach Boxell has helped me because he has basically been hard on me and expects more from me,” said Mitchem. “He doesn’t let me slack and I am more aggressive on the court. That has really influenced me. You can’t take any time off in practice or in games. I haven’t ever been in this type of role, so I really didn’t know if I had it in me. I now realize I had a lot of growing to do.”
With two games remaining, both Boxell and Mitchem want to see the Eagles (8-14, 6-11 ASC) perform well to end the year. Ozarks will host LeTourneau University Thursday and East Texas Baptist University Saturday.
“We have had some good moments this year and we have had others that have been disappointing,” said Boxell. “I would like to have some positive memories for these kids in our final two games.We are playing two very tough teams. Both are coming in fighting for a place in the conference tournament. I would like the kids to leave with a positive taste in their mouths. Right now we are playing for the pride and character of our team.”
“We want to finish the season on a winning note,” he said. “When you end on a good note that gives the team more enthusiasm in the off-season. I know that we can compete with the top teams in the conference, it is just going to take a little more effort on our part in the off-season to get to that next level. This off-season I will probably be more vocal and be on people’s tails. I don’t want us to slack. My teammates are probably not going to like me.”