Senior Chris Mitchell admitted he never expected to be with the Western Washington University men's basketball program for five years, and especially not six.
But before the 6-foot-9 center they call Big Smooth earned his nickname, he enjoyed a successful high school career just a few miles northeast of Bellingham at Nooksack Valley in Everson.
Mitchell has spent his last 10 years playing basketball in Whatcom County's prep and collegiate ranks, and the big man with an inside-outside game said it's been an honor on the eve of the beginning of Western's NCAA Division II Tournament title defense.
"It's been a huge privilege, just being able to play at a high school level of basketball in Whatcom County then have friends and family being able to come to all the college home games and close away games," Mitchell said. "It's pretty special to be able to be here for so long and win a lot of games and have a successful career."
Mitchell, as well as Western's five other seniors, know every game moving forward could be their last when No. 1-seeded WWU begins the opening round of the West Regional Tournament against No. 8-seeded Chaminade at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 15, at Carver Gym.
Mitchell's journey to his sixth year with Western hasn't been a typical one.
He redshirted his freshman year, and then played sparingly in three games the next season before suffering a season-ending foot injury. The NCAA granted Mitchell a medical hardship, giving him an additional year of eligibility.
Mitchell started 16 games as a redshirt sophomore and became a full-time starter on last season's national title team. He's started all 29 games this season.
"He has been very valuable," WWU coach Tony Dominguez said in a phone interview. "He does some of the little things you just can't explain. He is such a hard worker, and he really is a fixture in Carver Gym."
Playing center on Western's guard-heavy team, Mitchell hasn't been the focal point of the offense even though Dominguez said he could easily take on a featured scoring role.
Mitchell is used more as a strong defender and rebounder this year, but he's proved his ability on the offensive end throughout his career.
His ability to play inside and hit 3-pointers from beyond the arch makes Mitchell tough to guard. His ability to shoot from the outside stretches opponent's defenses and creates open lanes for Western's guards to penetrate. Mitchell's made a habit of converting clutch 3s, and that was most prevalent during WWU's title game win last year against Montevallo when he went 4 for 5 from deep.
"He's one of the main reasons we went to a lot of ball screens on offense," Dominguez said. "Guys that are guarding him are a lot slower, and that creates a matchup we can take advantage of."
Mitchell is averaging 8.6 points and 5.8 rebounds this season and has helped WWU compile 27 wins, including 24 straight to start the season.
Western is coming off a tough 72-70 loss against Seattle Pacific University in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title game, but Mitchell said the loss hasn't negatively affected Western's mindset heading into Friday's NCAA Tournament.
"It's definitely a refocusing point for us," Mitchell said. "It's not too positive to lose a championship game, but there are things to be learned. We definitely had spots in the game where we could have done better, but it definitely refocused us to come with energy this regional tournament."
Going into the NCAA's following a loss is by no means a bad omen for Western.
What happened last year when the Vikings lost in the GNAC Tournament before Division II's Big Dance? Western won six straight and claimed the school's first men's basketball national championship.
"We have reflected back to last year, and we are using that game as motivation," said Dominguez of Western's loss to Montana State University Billings during the 2012 GNAC Tournament.
Repeating as national champions is a rare feat. Dominguez and the Vikings know this, but WWU does have home-court advantage on its side.
"To host the regional tournament is a huge deal," Mitchell said. "We learned that last year how big of an advantage it is to host the first three games of the NCCA Tournament. You can't ask for much more than hosting the regional tournament."
Experience is another area the Vikings have working in their favor. Seniors John Allen, Cameron Severson, Rico Wilkins and Paul Jones have all played on the highest level D II has to offer. While Dominguez said 24-year-old Mitchell isn't Western's most vocal player, he said his center's experience is invaluable to the team.
And Mitchell has accepted his leadership role.
"We played on last year's national championship team, so there is a level of respect from the guys who didn't play on that team," Mitchell said. "Our average age on our team is unusually high, and that helps more than anything."
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