(Photo courtesy of John Clay/Kentucky.com)
In 2007, the University of Kentucky women’s basketball coach Mickie DeMoss resigned and Mitch Barnhart hired then Morehead State coach Matthew Mitchell. Mitchell had turned Morehead State’s program around in short order. Prior to his arrival, the Eagles had only won five games. In his first year, Mitchell won 16 games and finished fourth in the Ohio Valley Conference. Mitchell’s coaching style was attractive to Kentucky fans, as it resembled the style that the 1990’s men’s basketball teams employed: fast pace, pressure defense and a lot of three point shots. He preached his style to all recruits and most bought in. From Mitchell’s UK Athletics bio:
“Matthew Mitchell’s teams are known for using three “winning tools” for success: honesty, hard work and discipline. So it’s no surprise that six seasons into his tenure as head coach he became the winningest head coach in program history. Now entering his 11th season as head coach at Kentucky, Mitchell holds 271 wins and year after year assembles teams who are synonymous with winning on and off the court.”
Matthew Mitchell is known for his gregarious personality, including his notorious Midnight Madness dance moves. However, Mitchell’s personality also includes being a very demanding, and sometimes polarizing, figure. This has recently led to a great deal of turmoil on the UK women’s team, concerning both players and coaches. Prior to and during the 2015-2016 season, several players and coaches left the UK women’s basketball program. All of them were not on good terms. From a Bluestar Media article by Wendy Parker (@wparker):
“The Wildcats survived four early-season player departures to reach the Sweet 16, but getting beat in the regionals by Washington at Rupp Arena was a deflating end to what had been an encouraging season. However, since the end of the season, two more players have transferred and a McDonald’s All-American signee has asked out of her letter of intent. More shockingly, Mitchell’s entire staff has departed, and not for the first time. He fired one of his assistants, Adeniyi Amadou, while Tamika Williams-Jeter and Camryn Whitaker resigned this week. Mitchell re-hired Kyra Elzy, dismissed at Tennessee, and who on staff during his successful early tenure at Kentucky.”
The McDonald’s All-American who was granted her release from her LOI was Lindsey Corsaro. Chrishae Rowe and Morgan Rich left before the 2015-2016 season started, followed by mid-season transfers Linnea Harper and Kyvin Goodwin-Rogers, as well as post-season transfer Batouly Camara. Another player, Ivana Jakubcova, transferred after the season, as well. Corsaro’s departure was tough, being one of only two UK women’s basketball signees at the time. This left Matthew Mitchell only eight players for the 2016-2017 season. The 2016-2017 UK women’s basketball team finished third in the SEC, with a league record of 11-5 and a 22-11 overall record. They had an up and down season, losing in the second round of the SEC tournament to eventual national champion South Carolina and the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Matthew Mitchell assembled a good, but uncharacteristic recruiting class for 2017-2018. He signed four players, only one of which was ranked higher than three stars. Compared to previous seasons, this was a major letdown. Add to that, Mitchell lost stars Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator to graduation. Both were selected in the WNBA draft, with Akhator picked third overall and Epps 33rd overall. This left a significant gap in talent, as compared to previous UK women’s basketball teams. However, the UK women started off well, going 8-1 in their first nine games. The only loss was to #9 Baylor in Waco, Texas. Then, on December 7, Matthew Mitchell and the University of Kentucky signed a three year extension, which makes him the coach of the UK women’s basketball team through the 2021-2022 season. Following the extension, Mitchell’s team then proceeded to lose six consecutive games, all but one by double digits.
While Mitch Barnhart is widely praised as a genius in the world of athletic directors and has improved Kentucky’s national posture in all sports during his tenure, his extension of Matthew Mitchell was, in my opinion, based on loyalty and extremely short-sighted. The best option for the University, the women’s basketball team, the fans and Matthew Mitchell would have been to continue with the contract that carried through 2018-2019, which was laced with performance based incentives. This extension seems to give Mitchell a pass on player defections, staff turmoil and a losing streak not seen since 2009. After today’s shellacking at the hands of Tennessee, Matthew Mitchell said “We’re a much better collection of players than what we’re showing.” I respectfully beg to differ. I believe that if Mitchell and the UK women do not get things turned around and make a deep run into the NCAA tournament, a serious look at the direction of the program is in order.
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