When Central Connecticut State defeated Mount St. Mary's' in the 2007 Northeast Conference semifinals, it meant the end of the Mount's season. What then-redshirt sophomore Markus Mitchell did not know is that it was also the beginning of a strong friendship with a future teammate.
While the Blue Devils' 2007 NEC Player of the Year, Javier Mojica, would lead his team past Sacred Heart in the title game three days later, and subsequently into the NCAA tournament, Mitchell had to watch from his room in Sheridan. Three years and a long plane ride from that March, Mitchell and Mojica are once again playing in the semifinals. This time, though, they both wear the same jersey in Puerto Rico's Baloncesto Superior Nacional league.
"Our team is unique for a professional team in the fact that we hang out a lot, all get along and are genuinely friends. Reminds me of college in a way," Mitchell wrote via Facebook message.
Mojica, a member of the Puerto Rican national team, however, is not Mitchell's only former college foe turned close friend and teammate on the Vaqueros de Bayamon squad. Ray Barbosa was on the UMBC Retrievers' team that often scrimmaged the Mount in the preseason and Mitchell says he frequently discusses past encounters with Mojica and Barbosa.
"We often talk about our battles in college and all three of us were also able to play in the NCAA tournament so we talk about that experience, too," wrote Mitchell, who has citizenship in Puerto Rico and would be eligible to play for the national team if selected.
While Mojica and Barbosa already won the title last year, Mitchell hopes to join the party with seven more postseason victories. Tied at one game apiece with the Cangenjeros de Santurce, Mitchell's Cowboys (English translation), who finished the regular season 23-6 to earn the No. 1 seed, tip off tonight at 8 p.m. EST in a pivotal game three. Games are played every other night for the rest of this round, a format Mitchell said he "loves."
The former CCSU and UMBC players may be familiar to the Mount community, but there are some other names in the league that any basketball fan could recognize. Former NBA players Mitchell has faced in the BSN include Antoine Walker, Marcus Fizer, Alondo Tucker, Peter John Ramos, Devin Green, Lee Nailon and Mike Sweetney.
As for former college players there is A.D. Vasallo, who played for the Virginia Tech team that narrowly escaped an upset from the Mountaineers in 2008.
"We [definitely] should have beat them," wrote Mitchell, who briefly discussed the game with Vassallo. His team faced the Cowboy's in the quarterfinals, where Mitchell exacted a bit of revenge with the series victory.
Walter Hodge, a former Florida Gators point guard, won a national championship in his freshman and sophomore seasons in Gainesville and, along with former Georgetown star Sweetney, is on the Crabbers (also English translation) squad that Mitchell's team is facing in the semifinals.
Then there is former Michigan star Robert "Tractor" Traylor. The McDonald's High School All-American in the same class as Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce is a starting forward for the Cowboys and has been a mentor to Mitchell.
While the former Mount post says he only averages about 10 minutes per game as the team's second-younger player, he does make the most of them thanks in large part to the mentoring provided by Traylor. After leading the Wolverines to an NIT title in his sophomore year and a Big Ten tournament title and NCAA tournament appearance the next, he was selected sixth overall in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks to begin his seven-year NBA career.
"I go up against Tractor every day in practice and he's constantly teaching me on little things I can do to become a better player," Mitchell wrote. "I think he's going to be the league defensive player of the year."
Also on Mitchell's team is the reigning finals MVP, Christian Dalmau, who Mitchell thinks will be tabbed as the league's overall MVP this season. Dalmau also plays on the Puerto Rican national team.
But first the Cowboys, who have more league titles than any other team, must worry about reaching the championship series. That quest continues in tonight's semifinals matchup. The league's Web site is here and can be somewhat translated into English if you Google search "Balencesto Superior Nacional" and click "translate this page". Results should be up at some point after each game. The site notes that the game is available on DirecTV, but I can't find it anywhere, so if you figure that out please comment.
Regardless of tonight's outcome, or that of the entire series, Mitchell is taking a positive look at his first professional season.
"I gained the confidence of my coaches and teammates so my rookie year up to this point has been a great success," Mitchell wrote. "[I] hope it will end with a championship."