Belgian-born Ajay Mitchell leading UCSB into the NCAA Tournament

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Posted at 11:05 PM, Mar 16, 2023

From the town of Ans, Liege in Belgium, sophomore Ajay Mitchell is coming off a season where he won Big West Player of the Year, a Big West championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament leaving no doubt that the left-handed point guard has already put his stamp on the U.C. Santa Barbara Men's Basketball Program in just the last two years.

It’s not too often to find and sign a player like Mitchell from overseas that is capable of leading a Division I program but sometimes all it takes is a zoom call and the sandy beaches of Isla Vista to seal the deal.

“[We} literally did Zoom recruiting, showed him the campus, showed him the ocean, the Thunderdome over Zoom and recruited him that way relentlessly for about a year,” Head Coach Joe Pasternack said.

Despite not even visiting the team before committing to the Gauchos, it didn’t take long for Mitchell to see what was on the horizon for this team.

“We have a great team and I knew it since I got here," Mitchell spoke honestly. "Just having all those pieces and being able to play as a team was huge this year and it's been amazing.”

As a freshman, Mitchell earned the Big West Freshman of the year honors as the the team finished 17-11 on the year.

The shot creation and footwork standout when watching the young point guard work and to see it unfold throughout the course of a college basketball game and it's in part to how he learned the game in Belgium.

“In Belgium, it was more like fundamentals; Knowing how to use your footwork, your dribble," Mitchell explained. "I wasn't a huge athlete. I was very small when I was in high school.”

Mitchell isn’t that small high schooler anymore though. He’s become the number one option on a team headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. Mitchell helped lead team to 27-7 record while averaging the most assists in the conference per game, fifth-highest scoring average and second highest field goal percentage.

“I’m just focused on winning. When I have the ball at the top of the key, it's just make a winning play. It might be scoring, it might be passing it to my open teammate.”

Simply put, Mitchell is a next level talent. For Pasternack, who’s coached multiple NBA players in his time at the University of Arizona and with the Gauchos, it’s not a matter of if but where and when he will get his shot to play professionally.

“[Mitchell is] one of the best players I've ever coached and he has the size and talent at his position," Pasternack said. "Without a question to me will be a first round NBA draft choice.”

“I want to get to the highest level I can," Mitchell added. "Obviously the NBA is my goal, but except for that is just getting to the highest level.”

Through all the success in the past, present and future, he’s got his home country watching with pride every step of the way.

"Just that experience from being the little kid in Belgium and now being here in college and being Player of the Year and going in the tournament, which a lot of my friends back home wanted to do as well, they all are cheering for me."

U.C. Santa Barbara attempts the upset as the 14-seed taking on the the 3-seed Baylor Bears. Baylor won a National Championship in 2021. Tip-off set for 10:30 a.m. in Denver, Colorado at Ball Arena.