Before Sam Mitchell took his first NBA assistant coaching job with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2002, close friends and mentors told him college coaching would probably suit him the best.

For years, Mitchell would run a free camp through his youth foundation in his hometown of Columbus, Ga.

“(Hall of Fame coach) Larry Brown used to say it all the time if I ride by a basketball court and there are 10 or more kids out there, I’m going to coach,” Mitchell said. “I enjoy working with younger guys.”

Mitchell, who was the Timberwolves interim coach last season, is ready for a change after more than a decade in the NBA. He noticed the trend of former NBA players and coaches making a transition to college basketball.

He sees now that the college game would be a good fit for him.

“My experience in Minnesota with Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins helped,” said Mitchell, 53. “We got them when they were 19 years old and one year removed from college. It’s no different, if you enjoy coaching, if you enjoy being around younger people and you enjoy trying to help them figure it out and get to that next level.”

College basketball has seen high-profile coaches make the jump from the NCAA to NBA for decades, most recently with Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State to Chicago Bulls), Brad Stevens (Butler to Boston Celtics) and Billy Donovan (Florida to Oklahoma City Thunder).

Not as well-known are former NBA players or coaches heading the other direction, going back to school in a way.

There were 26 former NBA players and coaches with Division I head coaching jobs entering the 2016-17 season, including eight new coaches in the last two years. Some familiar first-year coaches this season were Terry Porter (Portland), Donyell Marshall (Central Connecticut), Damon Stoudermire (Pacific) and Mike Dunleavy Sr. (Tulane).

Last season, Chris Mullin went 8-24 at St. John’s, his alma mater, and Mark Price finished 14-19 at Charlotte. But Avery Johnson went 18-15 in his first year at Alabama, and he’s 13-7 this season, including 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference. Eric Musselman was 24-14 last season and now he’s off to a 17-4 start at Nevada this year.

Mitchell sees opportunities to make a difference teaching the game and life skills in college, and he’s excited what would be new challenges for him with recruiting.

To gain more experience with younger players, Mitchell became the head coach of the Virgin Islands National Team last year, and his roster is mainly college players. He’s still trying to convince Gophers sophomore forward Jordan Murphy to join the team, because his mother is from the Virgin Islands.

Mitchell also coached Adidas high school all-star camps in Florida and California last summer. Several of the top players in the country were in attendance, eager to learn from coaches like Mitchell with NBA experience. They all have dreams of playing in the league one day, and he was able to give them advice on how tough it can be.

After the NCAA’s rule change in 2015 dropped the shot clock from 35 seconds to 30, the pace increased. The style of play is getting more like the NBA, which has a 24-second clock.

So there are advantages to athletic directors for hiring coaches with NBA experience, more than just getting a big-name to make a splash. Mitchell hopes next season he can be part of that NBA-to-college fraternity.

“What these kids don’t understand is that the NBA is a whole (different) level of mental preparation than college,” he said. “It’s a culture shock. I remember Zach LaVine’s first day and all the stuff and all the terminology we’re throwing at him. It’s a cram session. The thing about it is, if you don’t get certain basics in college then you’re behind.”

PLAYER TO WATCH

Ethan Happ, F-C Wisconsin

The 6-10 sophomore jumped into the Big Ten and national player of the year conversation with two huge games: 28 points and 12 rebounds in an overtime win at Minnesota, and 32 points in a victory against Rutgers. He’s the only player in the country leading his team in points (16.8), rebounds (8.7), assists (2.9), steals (2.7) and blocks (1.3) per game in conference play.

GAME OF THE WEEKEND

(23) Purdue at (17) Maryland

11 a.m. Saturday, ESPN: There will be Pac-12 title implications when No. 5 Arizona plays at No. 13 Oregon on Saturday. But the Big Ten race is a bigger deal in these parts. Purdue is probably the top threat to Big Ten leaders Wisconsin and Maryland. The Terrapins will be tested by one of the conference’s top teams and players for the first time Saturday hosting the Boilermakers and All-America candidate Caleb Swanigan.

FINAL THOUGHT

It doesn’t get any better than being able to watch some college basketball teams battling in the middle of conference play Sunday afternoon, then showing up for a Super Bowl party at night to see the big game. The pride of Michigan football, Tom Brady, will be solidified (as if he isn’t already) as the G.O.A.T. when it comes to NFL quarterbacks with his fifth Super Bowl victory. My pick: New England over Atlanta.

BIG TEN POWER POLL

Marcus Fuller’s rankings, with five teams to watch:

1. Wisconsin (19-3, 8-1 Big Ten)

2. Maryland (20-2, 8-1)

Young gun: Freshman Justin Jackson has scored 50 points and grabbed 22 rebounds combined in his past two games, while shooting 9-for-12 from three-point range. He scored 28 in 85-78 win at Minnesota on Jan. 28.

3. Purdue (18-5, 7-3)

4. Northwestern (18-5, 7-3)

Top scorer out: Wildcats leading scorer Scottie Lindsey is out indefinitely because of an undisclosed illness. Lindsey (15.4 ppg) missed his first game Wednesday and Northwestern fell 80-59 at Purdue.

5. Michigan State (14-9, 6-4)

6. Michigan (14-8, 4-5)

7. Indiana (15-8, 5-5)

Triple OT: Indiana outlasted Penn State 110-102 in triple overtime Wednesday without leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. (leg). The Hoosiers got 85 points combined from Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk.

8. Minnesota (15-7, 3-6)

9. Iowa (13-10, 5-5)

Jok hurt: Injury bug is going around. Big Ten scoring leader Peter Jok (back) missed the past two games for the Hawkeyes, but they managed to beat Ohio State and Rutgers without him.

10. Penn State (12-11, 4-6)

11. Illinois (13-10, 3-7)

12. Ohio State (13-10, 3-7)

13. Nebraska (10-12, 4-6)

Slump ends: The Cornhuskers saw their five-game losing streak stopped with an upset over Purdue this week, looking more like the team that got off to a 3-0 Big Ten start.

14. Rutgers (12-11, 1-9)

 

Marcus Fuller covers college basketball for the Star Tribune. marcus.fuller@startribune.com

Twitter: @Marcus_R_Fuller

Blog: startribune.com/gophers