COLUMBIA — Nicholas Smith had been watching a lot of Missouri men’s basketball games on TV this season, trying to predict how Tony Mitchell would fit in when he arrived.
“I was like damn, man, if he was there right now, they probably would not have one loss,” Smith said.
The impact Mitchell would have made on Missouri will continue to linger as speculation. Reality interrupted on Wednesday when the NCAA announced through a press release that MU will make no further appeals concerning the eligibility of the 6-foot-8, 220-pound prospect from Dallas, Texas.
Smith has known Mitchell for three years, and he coached him during Mitchell’s senior season at Pinkston High School in Dallas. That year, Mitchell averaged more than 20 points and 13 rebounds a game.
Smith knew Mitchell when he signed his letter of intent to play basketball for Missouri, and he knows him now, the day Mitchell is moving forward without Missouri in the picture.
In September, Missouri announced that Mitchell would be absent from what would have been his first semester because of an NCAA investigation into his eligibility.
Smith said by phone that Mitchell has been quiet since his eligibility was in question. He talked less as everyone around him talked more.
“Everybody, everywhere you’d go, barbershops, everywhere around here, 'Hey man when’s Tony leave?' 'Hey man, what’s up with Tony?' 'When does he leave?' One minute he thinks he’s leaving in November. Next minute, he thinks he’s gonna be leaving in December. It just keeps getting pushed further and further back,” Smith said.
Mitchell waited. So did everyone else.
“All the kids and people around here looked up to him. They were waiting,” Smith said.
Months passed and questions directed toward the NCAA went unanswered. No one would comment on an ongoing investigation.
“They drug that thing out a long time,” Smith said.
According to the NCAA release, Mitchell was ruled ineligible on Jan. 5. Missouri then appealed, but the decision was upheld on Jan. 13. Then, Missouri sent additional information to the NCAA to consider.
Smith said the information included academic records from Center of Life Christian Academy, the high school Mitchell attended before playing his senior season at Pinkston.
"It came down to the courses they would accept and wouldn’t accept,” Smith said.
The NCAA said that the provided information made no impact on its initial ruling. Mitchell has not been reached for comment, but Smith said his former player has mixed feelings.
Mitchell wanted to be at Missouri. His wardrobe was ready.
“He went and got Missouri shirts and things he had. You know, hats and stuff. He went by the store,” Smith said.
Yet at the same time, Mitchell finally knew. Now he could move forward.
“It’s a huge weight off his shoulders right now,” Smith said.
“When he got the news that he wasn’t gonna get it, I know that bothered him. But at the same time, shoot, you’ve gotta handle business because you’ve only got a few days to be somewhere.”
Smith said Mitchell received notice of his ineligibility one day before the NCAA statement was publicly released. He went from waiting to rushing, trying to plan out what his next step would be.
The NCAA’s decision means that Mitchell is not allowed to “compete, practice or receive athletic aid.”
Then, the release mentions the two ways someone in Mitchell's position could become eligible for Division I athletics. Mitchell could go to a junior college, or enroll at a four-year school without participating in athletics. After a year, his eligibility could be granted if he met requirements and showed progress toward a degree.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to decide on,” Smith said.
An initial thought was that Mitchell could apply to Missouri as a student, hinging on the fact that he would be admissible. But, according to the Big 12 Conference’s rules on eligibility, Mitchell could not regain his eligibility if he enrolled in a Big 12 Conference school as a non-eligible student.
“A student-athlete who initially enrolls at a Conference Member Institution must meet NCAA initial eligibility requirements for qualifiers, prior to their initial enrollment, either full-time or part-time, at any collegiate institution to be eligible for financial aid and competition. These rules apply to all student-athletes initially enrolling at Conference Member Institutions, regardless of whether athletic or institutional financial aid is awarded it.”
Perhaps Mitchell could transfer in once his eligibility was granted at another school.
“He thought about possibly going to junior college and coming to Mizzou in a year and a half or possibly two. Then, at the same time, he was like well, he gave it a shot, and it didn’t, so he moved on,” Smith said.
As Mitchell was being recruited, North Texas had always been one of his favorite schools along with Missouri. The school is a member of the SunBelt Conference, which lets students participate in athletics after earning their eligibility.
Smith said Mitchell was on the North Texas campus on Wednesday, filling out the necessary paperwork to apply for admission.
“The process started today. He got a lot of his stuff done, and then I think the rest is going to be done tomorrow (Thursday),” Smith said.
Whether Mitchell will be accepted as a student is not yet known, but Smith is confident the player who was ranked as the No. 12 recruit out of high school will be in a North Texas lecture hall soon.
“He’ll take 15 hours this spring semester, come back and take nine in the summer … He’ll come back that fall, and he’ll be eligible Dec. 17,” Smith said.
Smith said Mitchell has no interest in trying to transfer schools if his eligibility is granted next year. He said if Mitchell doesn’t leave to pursue a career in the NBA, he will remain at North Texas.
“From what I’ve seen and heard, right now it’s North Texas. That’s what it’s gonna be. That’s where he is. That’s it,” Smith said.
But even if Mitchell eventually joins the North Texas Mean Green, Smith is quick to note that his former player’s heart was set on being a Missouri Tiger.
“You know just like I know, and everybody else knows. The kid wanted to be at Missouri,” Smith said. “He didn’t get in. It didn’t happen.”