Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell has made huge gains with his program over the last three seasons and once again figures to have a team that will contend for the Southeastern Conference championship and a Final Four berth.
In his five years as UK’s head coach, Mitchell has guided his teams to a 114-56 overall mark and 48-28 record in SEC play. Following the 2009-10 season when his team went 28-8, Mitchell was named the SEC Coach of the Year, Victoria Dunlap was named the SEC player of the year and A'dia Mathies was named the SEC freshman of the eear. The Wildcats joined 1988 unbeaten national champion Tennessee as the only teams in SEC women's basketball history to sweep the major post-season awards.
The Cats' 28 overall wins, including 11 SEC wins, were school records and UK finished second in the league despite being picked to finish 11th in the preseason polls. In his fourth season Mitchell once again led the Wildcats to an outstanding season with a 25-9 overall record and a school-record-tying 11 wins (11-5) in the SEC. UK took a second-place finish in the league standings for the second-consecutive year and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 4 seed.
Last season the Wildcats finished 28-7 and were 13-3 in league play, won the conference championship and reached the Elite Eight. Kentucky returns four starters, including SEC player of the year Mathies and SEC freshman of the year Bria Goss.
Mitchell shared his thoughts on a variety of subjects going into this season:
Question: What has the offseason been like for you?
Mitchell: “There is certainly an element to the offseason as far as it relates to players and not spending time with them, and that is my least favorite time of the year. We finished workouts in the spring, and then from April until September I was not allowed on the court with them. That is the longest part of the year for me. I would like to be coaching them all the time.
“But we seem to have things going all the time. Recruiting is just an everyday thing. If you are not recruiting, you are not doing what you need to be doing. I spent time with the family. (My daughter) Saylor is growing up. (My wife) Jen and I took a couple of trips and just had a great summer.”
Question: What difference has the success of the last couple of years made in recruiting when you are out now?
Mitchell: “I had some great mentors as I grew in the coaching profession. Something that was a common thread that they all talked about was humility, being humble and looking and things realistically. It was pounded in my head so many times that I am always thinking, ‘This can’t be happening, I’ve got to work harder.’
“But it has just been amazing the level of attention we are getting from kids that three or four years ago we could not even get to take phone calls. It is a huge difference, and sometimes I am slow to recognize or say that. It is safe to say we are viewed as one of the top programs in the country by recruits and are now viewed as a top option, something that is very different. The last three teams have really elevated our program.”
Question: Has that made recruiting easier or harder now that you are going against the elite programs?
Mitchell: “It has made it easier, because I would rather people know who we are and what you are about than to spend lot of time explaining that. It is easier from a recognition standpoint and being involved with top kids.
“But when you recruit top kids, it gets harder because they all have great, great options and the opportunity to go to Connecticut, Notre Dame, Stanford, schools that have been in the last few Final Fours. That gets real tough competing with those schools.
“In general, recruiting is just hard. Everybody is different. You have to spend time getting to know what each individual is looking for. Recruiting is just tough.”
Question: How optimistic are you about this season?
Mitchell: “I am really excited about what this team can become. From a talent standpoint, we are better than we have ever been. Whoever you decide is our best player, and say it is A’dia Mathies, and whoever is the 13th player and getting the least amount of minutes, this is the most talent we have ever assembled. We need to pay close attention to the opportunity we have. We could win a bunch of games and be very good if the players understand what takes to be good.”
Question: What impact can 6-3 Denesha Stallworth make for your team after sitting out last season as a transfer from California?
Mitchell: “From a talent standpoint, she puts us in position to be more talented. She is a real, real talent. I don’t think (I’m) overstating it all to say she has a chance be the best player in SEC if she puts her mind to it.
“She did a fantastic job last year preparing, practicing with no games on the horizon. Sometimes it’s just human nature that you would think would lead to maybe poor practices. She practiced really, really good. I anticipate her being outstanding and being a huge part of our success.”
Question: What does she do best?
Mitchell: “She just scores and defends around the basket. She is a really, really agile and nimble big kid who can block shots, and she can really run the floor and catch in transition and finish.
“There is not a lot she can’t do. She can guard on the perimeter, guard in the post, can drive to the basket. She is just a basketball player that is really really skilled for her size. But I would say the best thing she does is just score.”
Question: Doesn’t that sound a lot like the description of Anthony Davis going into last season?
Mitchell: “We will probably use her more on the perimeter, and she won’t be that dominant of a shot-blocker like Anthony, but she will impact the game. Anthony was an unbelieveable shot-blocker. She will be good and be a good rebounder. She is really a good player.”
Question: Do you expect more out of Samari Walker this year in her first full season after her transfer from Connecticut?
Mitchell: “I think it is important for her to continue to probe and push and see if we can find a way to get her to expand her skill set and get to the spot she elevates the mental side of her game. She gets down and is too hard on herself. That is what she didn’t do in the NCAA tournament and why against the best competition of year she averaged a double-double.
“She is definitely a player we want to take a step forward, and we will raise the expectation level for her. Now she will be able mentally to prepare for her entire season. It is difficult to jump into it in the middle of the year after everybody else has 10 to 11 games under their belt and then you are thrust into a situation like at Notre Dame and have to find a way to mesh immediately.”
Question: Is there any way for A’dia Mathies to be better than she has, and what makes her so special?
Mitchell: “I think A’dia can get a little bit more out of her game still. I still think there is always room for improvement. If she has an identical year from a production standpoint because we have better players around here, we will be good. If she finds a way to squeeze more out, it will really help. We need her to be better.
“We don’t want to stop at the Elite Eight. She would be a big part of getting us to a Final Four if she plays better. A lot of that is on the mental side, but there’s no doubt she is very talented.”
Question: Did you envision her being this good when you recruited her?
Mitchell: “I would be lying all over the place if I thought even the program would look like this. I thought she would help make steps forward, but literally during her time here the program has transformed so much. No way I could have anticipated what she has done and accomplished and meant to Kentucky. It’s just incredible. She was SEC freshman of the year and SEC player of the year in her first three seasons. No one could have expected that.”
Question: Does the fact that you have so many veteran players this season change your preseason preparation?
Mitchell: “We try every single year to start over and evaluate what we have and try to figure out the personality of the current team, because every year is different. We aren’t banking on a lot what happened the year before. Now I do think we will be further down the road as far as integrating drills in practice because of the familiarity with what we are doing. Two years ago we had six freshmen and I was proud we won 25 games. I don’t think that year things flowed smoothly and we had a real edge to our team.”
Question: What are your hopes for Brittany Henderson this year, and how much has she improved over the course of her career?
Mitchell: “She means an awful lot, because what has happened with her is what we are telling recruits that we want to happen with them. She has come here and really improved her game. Just done an incredible job on being real selfless, playing with a great attitude and doing whatever is necessary to fill her role. It has not always been a glamorous role. We talk being a person of sacrifice that will give up something for the betterment of the team.
“She has developed into a nice leader. She understands the way we want things done. That is when you feel you have a chance to start to have great program, when players take care of areas I had to be always be in charge of. You see players emerge and handle things from a program culture standpoint. She is doing that, and it means a lot and I am proud of what she has done.”
Question: Who is the one player you expect to make the biggest jump from this season?
Mitchell: “We have still not talked about Bria Goss. I am thinking if we can find a way, and we are trying to find a way to go in with a focused plan, and if we can find a way to help A’dia and Bria get little better and Samari better and add in Stallworth, we can be really good.
“I really think the key for this team and being really good and having a chance to be great is the point guard position. I know we have got A’dia (to) run the point, but if we can keep her on the wing and then Megan (Conwright), Janee (Thompson) or Jennifer (O’Neill) can run the point, then we could have a dynamite team.
“If you are looking at where we could talk about a big jump, it would be if we could solidify that position. We should be good even if A’dia is running the point, but we could be even better if we have her on the wing.”
Question: Can Thompson run the point for a Final Four contender as a true freshman?
Mitchell: “That’s what we recruited her for. We did not recruit to sit on the bench. It’s hard to predict what she is doing. She has all the intangibles, and all signs are pointing to her having a real good chance to impact the team in a significant way.”
Question: Where does the outside shooting come from?
Mitchell: “Goss has put lot of time in the gym. She got off to great start last year and faded and picked back up in the NCAA. A’dia led the league in 3-point shooting for a huge part of the year. Somebody would could help big time if she stays healthy is Jen O’Neill. Thompson is a very good 3-point shooter.
“We have kids that can knock it down and have more weapons this year than in the past when we just relied on Keyla Snowden being our only real threat.”
Question: What prompted you to bring your infant daughter to photo day, and do the players always embrace her like they did that day?
Mitchell: “They are really, really sweet to her. We had that professional cameraman there, so I am always looking for ways to save money. It was really so we could get free pictures of high quality, not just iPhone. I wanted professional photos of her.
“But in all seriousness, we are trying to make sure that recruits know that this is a program that embraces family. I want them to be part of our family and we are part of their family. My older daughter Lacey traveled last year. Jen is a big part of this. We want for girls to know we have a close-knit team. And the girls were not putting on for the camera. They are good for her, and you could tell Saylor was loving every minute. It was a great day.”
Question: Did you ever anticipate that buying a house would become a news story — and does that make you feel a bit John Calipari-like?
Mitchell: “I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing. I was amazed that it was as interesting as it was. I guess there was no way around it with coach (Rick) Pitino building the house when he was coaching at Kentucky. It’s very different now, totally remodeled.
“It is a great place for us. We really did it with the goal of getting closer to campus and church where Saylor will be going to school. That’s how we started looking in that area and it was just a perfect location for us. We are looking forward to living there for a bunch of years.”
Question: Are you working on something special for Big Blue Madness again to follow up on the dances of the last few years?
Mitchell: “It is going to be hard to top last year, but I am going to give it an effort. I really messed up. I don’t know where this thing will end up. At some point, I have got to say this is not happening any more. I just try to have fun.
“My moves, if that is what you want to call them ... well, we will have something again. The players get a big kick out of them. Last year our marketing people did an unbelievable job with the set for Big Blue Madness. Our players really enjoyed it, and so I did I even though I basically embarrassed myself again.”