Against the Racers on Saturday, the 6-foot-4 Mitchell sat on the bench in warm-ups that never came off as the team floundered in the game’s late stages, just as it had done against Miami four night’s earlier at Millett Hall.
That night Mitchell was benched for all but four minutes of the second half. He’s scheduled to return Monday night when the Raiders host Tiffin, an NCAA Division II program.
Saturday night though, WSU struggled without him.
“We played almost the entire second half without a point guard,” said Nagy. “It’s hard to play basketball when you can’t dribble, when guys aren’t used to handling tthe press.”
Tye Wilburn, a junior-college walk-on who averaged 7.9 minutes and 1.1 points per game last season for the Raiders, started at point guard but was hobbled early in the game, made a trip to the training room and played only six minutes in the second half.
Freshman Jaylon Hall, playing his first-ever college game, took over at the point.
Combined, Wilburn and Hall made 2 of 10 shots, turned the ball over eight times and had just 2 assists.
Cole Gentry, 5-foot-10 transfer who Nagy recruited to South Dakota State when he was coaching there, will be eligible to play for the Raiders beginning December 19th. He redshirted his lone season with Nagy at SDSU and last season started 4 of 10 games there, averaged 3.3 points and then left for Wright State.
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Saturday night in his postgame comments Nagy twice mentioned missing Mitchell.
As he perused the stat sheet, Nagy admitted: “It would have helped to have had Justin tonight.”
But no matter what transpired on the floor that wasn’t going to happen he said later as he stood by himself outside the dressing room:
“It was my decision. I’ve been coaching a long time, long enough to know the benefits we’ll get from this down the road.”
Mitchell seemed to agree.
“It was for the better,” he said in a text message. “I believe in my teammates and my coaches and whatever decisions are made on this team – it’s beneficial.”
Last Thursday, Nagy had said he would sit Mitchell for a game. He didn’t get into specifics, other than to say he needed his star to mesh better with the young players nor playing beside him. He thought Mitchell was pressing, trying to do too much and score too much to compensate for the inexperience on the team.
Last year’s team lost three players to graduation – Mark Alstork, Steven Davis and Mike LaTulip—who combined for 41 points a game.
This season, Mitchell and Grant Benzinger are the only seniors who play and Benzinger missed the entire preseason following a surgery. He’s still not 100 percent, especially his legs, and it shows in his shots. The team’s best shooter, his shots have fallen short more than usual.
Although he scored 13 points Saturday night, he was 1 for 6 from three-point range.
Last season Mitchell – who started all 32 games – was No. 2 in the Horizon League Conference in rebounds (8.3 per game), fifth in assists, eighth in field goal percentage, 19th in steals and 21st in scoring (11.5).
At the start of this season, he talked of being the team’s leader and said his lofty goal was to average a triple-double for the season and help WSU raise a Horizon League championship banner by season’s end.
But so far this season he’s averaging 8.5 points, six rebounds and three assists per game.
Before the season Mitchell said he believed he was one of the best point guards in the country.
While Nagy opined that he very well could be his best player, he said he didn’t see him “as a true point guard.”
“He gets mad at me when I say that, but I don’t think he is a natural point guard,” Nagy said prior to the first game. “He takes that as a negative, but I look at that the other way. He’s an enigma for a point guard . He can play a lot of positons.
“He’s a tremendous rebounder, shoots a high percentage and has a high assist-to-turnover ratio. And he’s a leader.”
Benzinger admitted the team lacked veteran leadership Saturday night. He said older players on the floor stuggled and that left the young players – Hall, Loudon Love and Everett Winchester, none of whom played a college game before this season - to fend for themselves.
“My team needed me out there fighting with them tonight,” Mitchell said. “We are a better team when we’re all on the floor together. We don’t have the depth for me not being able to play .”
“It was tough for me not being able to be out there with my teammates and lead them.”
Just as the Raiders had swooned in the final minutes of regulation and in overtime against Miami, they faltered against Murray State and were outscored 20-5 in the final six minutes
“We didn’t have much energy at the end,” said Love who led the Raiders with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Along with shooting just 25 percent from three-point range (4 for 16), he Raiders were out-rebounded by Murray State, had more turnovers and had just seven assists, compared to 18 by the Racers.
Benzinger believes he’ll get back to his old form soon and the young players will grow into their roles. He said it’s a long season and everyone must “embrace the process.”
“Some guys don’t want to hear what they’re doing wrong,” he said. “Whatever they (coaches) think we’re doing wrong we got (to listen). We got to be in this 100 percent. If we don’t, it could go south. If we buy in, it could be really good.”
Nagy and Mitchell said the same thing.
Before the season Mitchell praised Nagy for seeing something in him last year and giving him a chance. After struggling his first two seasons here, he said he had planned to transfer until Nagy took the job.
Nagy sang Mitchell’s praises after Saturday’s game, as well:
“Justin’s a great kid. He trusts me. He’ll be ready to go (now.)”
Mitchell agreed: “Life experience – we live and we learn. (This) helped me to realize a lot tonight, honestly.”
He didn’t say exactly what, but Nagy had earlier:
“I’m not going to put winning before everything else.”