Mitchell's second chance paying off

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The Rutgers men's basketball team has not been to the NCAA tournament since 1991. Yet one of its current players has a national championship ring.

Confused a little?

Jonathan Mitchell -- Rutgers' 6-foot-7 senior forward and leading scorer this season -- did not begin his college career with the Scarlet Knights. He spent his first two seasons at the University of Florida. And as a freshman in 2006-07, he was a member of the Gators' second consecutive NCAA title-winning team.

Mitchell appeared in 30 games that season, albeit filling a small role, averaging 1.4 points and 1.2 rebounds in 6.2 minutes per game.

"It was a great experience, just being down there with those guys my freshman year -- Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer," Mitchell said. "I learned a lot from those guys -- just how to work in college. They were coming off the first championship, going for the second, and their focus and their determination and the way coach [Billy] Donovan ran things -- I think it's helping me now."

Why isn't it helping him in Gainesville? Well, after those three stars moved on to the NBA following that second championship, Mitchell still struggled to earn playing time. The next season, his minutes increased to only 11.4 per game. Mitchell and the Florida coaching staff mutually agreed that it would be best if he sought a transfer.

"I was in paradise my freshman year being with those guys and being part of a national championship," Mitchell said. "Ultimately I just think I got caught up in the Florida atmosphere, not putting in the work that I should have. And I mean, that was just me being young, in Gainesville. Now that I look back on it, the one thing that I would change over is my work ethic and trying to stay focused all the time.

"I don't regret going there. Coach Donovan still sends my uncle e-mails after I have a nice game, if he saw it. There's no bad blood. ... It definitely wasn't a personal thing."

Mitchell -- a local product from Mount Vernon, N.Y., who broke Ben Gordon's scoring record at Mount Vernon High School -- elected to finish his college career closer to home, at Rutgers. He was attracted by the chance to play in the Big East, and the chance to play in front of family and friends. But there was something else, too.

"I wanted to help change the culture," Mitchell said. "Obviously it's not gonna happen overnight, but I wanted to kind of lay the foundation for the future, so that dudes will want to come to Rutgers."

His first season in Piscataway was a painful one, as he had to sit out following his transfer and watched the Scarlet Knights go 2-16 in Big East play. Last season, Rutgers improved marginally, to 5-13 in the conference. But Mitchell finally had the impact season he thought himself capable of all along, starting all 32 games and averaging 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds.

This season, under new coach Mike Rice, Mitchell has continued to blossom. He is the only Scarlet Knight averaging in double figures (12.4 ppg) and has put up several big performances, including scoring 21 in the team's first Big East win, against Providence, and 20 in a losing effort against North Carolina at Madison Square Garden.

Rice, who'd been familiar with Mitchell since his Mount Vernon days, gave him high marks for his season thus far -- "B-plus, [or] A-minus" -- and said he has expanded his repertoire at Rice's urging.

"J-Mitch is a very consistent pick-and-pop 4-man," Rice said. "[But] he never got fouled, because there was no versatility in his game. I knew we were gonna struggle offensively, so he's done a much better job of not just settling to become a perimeter 4-man, a jump-shooting 4-man."

Indeed, Mitchell shot only 47 free throws all of last season. This season he already has 43 attempts, in only 16 games.

Mitchell, in turn, was complimentary of his new coach -- despite the fact that he's had to develop a thicker skin to deal with Rice's fiery demeanor (to put it mildly).

"Coach Rice's level of demand is totally different than any coach I've probably ever had," Mitchell said. "He gets his point across ... [pause] ... in ways that they'll get across.

"I think he's doing a great job so far."

Rutgers is 10-6 overall, 1-3 in the Big East, heading into a home game against Georgetown on Saturday. Mitchell hopes to bounce back from one of his poorest performances of the season, in which he scored only four points on 2-for-12 shooting in a loss to UConn on Tuesday.

In the bigger picture, he's just trying to close out this chapter of his career on a high note -- even though it won't result in another ring.

"Florida was my first love," Mitchell said. "It was just like falling in love for the first time. You're always gonna remember that person, and I'm always gonna remember that place.

"This is business [now]. In Big East play, I gotta be a little more consistent. If I play a little better in a couple more games, we maybe could have a couple more Big East wins. So I'm just holding myself accountable."