Matthew Mitchell has been a head coach for a decade now.
Losing hasn't gotten any easier for him in that time.
"It's just misery, man," Mitchell said. "I don't know how to describe it other than it's just miserable. I'm no fun to be around."
Mitchell got his most recent reminder of how unpleasant it is to lose on Thursday night. No. 10 Kentucky (16-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) dropped a 73-72 heartbreaker to No. 6 Tennessee, missing four potential game winners in the final 16 seconds.
Afterward, Mitchell spent some time sulking, but not too much.
"You can fuss and mull it over and stew and fume at the house like I did last night for three or four hours and then you gotta get up this morning and turn the page, man," Mitchell said. "You gotta get going because this game is in front of us and that one last night is behind us."
The page turned, UK is on to Georgia. The Wildcats better be.
"We're playing a Georgia team that will beat our tail if we don't get ready for them. It's a wonderful thing from that standpoint," Mitchell said. "If you want to hang your head right now, Georgia will be more than happy to take advantage of that."
The No. 21/20 Lady Bulldogs enter Sunday's 1 p.m. matchup with UK at Memorial Coliseum 17-4 (5-3 SEC). The Cats will be Georgia's third straight top 10 foe after the Lady Bulldogs beat Texas A&M on Jan. 22 and lost at Tennessee on Sunday.
Georgia played the final 22:42 of that game without leading scorer Shacobia Barbee. Barbee will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in her lower right leg. The Cats, only weeks removed from losing Janee Thompson to a season-ending injury as well, can relate.
"It just takes away an extremely talented, experienced, tough player that can affect the game defensively, on the rebounding, the scoring," Mitchell said. "She's just a really outstanding player for them. It's just absolutely horrible for that kid. It's horrible for anybody to have a season-ending injury."
Since Georgia had an open date on Thursday, Mitchell isn't sure exactly how Barbee's absence will affect the Lady Bulldogs. What he does know is they'll be ready come Sunday.
"If I needed somebody to figure it out, Coach (Andy) Landers is probably as good as anybody to figure it out," Mitchell said. "So they'll be ready. They'll play real hard. They'll be tough. They will know how to attack us and what our weaknesses are and they'll put stress on that."
Similarly focused on UK's weaknesses are the Cats themselves.
UK played the No. 6 Lady Vols to just a made shot or foul call away from a victory in spite of 19 turnovers and a still-developing group of young post players. As difficult as it might be for Mitchell to remember, that's a reminder of what the Cats are capable of.
"With this team, we don't have any time to waste," Mitchell said. "I really do think we're improving. I really do. I think we're getting better. I think we're headed in the right direction. I think this team has a chance to be really good. That's what we need to stay focused on right now, just fight for improvement every day."
Matthew Mitchell has never been afraid of a little self-reflection.
His latest look in the mirror came after Kentucky lost at LSU 10 days ago.
"Baton Rouge was a big wake-up call for me because as I looked at the film, it was not a team that was playing with a great desire and it was not a team playing with a lot of fire or that was playing particularly sharp," Mitchell said. "That's all on me."
Particularly when it comes to his young group of post players, the season has brought more than its share of frustration for Mitchell. With coaching departed veterans Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth still so fresh in his mind, he couldn't help it.
"What I noticed and what I think it was not helpful was grading them and comparing them to past teams," Mitchell said. "That got us into a spot where I was probably more negative than I needed to be with our post players."
Ahead of a showdown with No. 6 Tennessee (17-3, 7-0 Southeastern Conference), Mitchell has changed his approach accordingly.
"I need to have an atmosphere in practice and around the program where they will fight, play hard and give you everything that they have," Mitchell said. "I just got the post players together last week and talked with them. It's not a matter of whether they can or they can't. It's a matter of whether they will or they won't."
Mitchell is learning to accept mistakes as he teaches, and also to simplify what he asks of freshmen Alexis Jennings, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Alyssa Rice.
"That doesn't mean it can't be good," Mitchell said. "That doesn't mean we can't win tomorrow night. We just have to do what we've been working on real well and we have to play extremely hard and we have to outwork Tennessee and we have to play a lot harder than Tennessee."
Though the goal with the Lady Volunteers coming to Memorial on Thursday at 7 p.m. is of course to win, No. 10 Kentucky (16-4, 5-2 SEC) doesn't view the path to victory as any different than it would be for another opponent. UK-Tennessee remains a rivalry with conference race implications, but the Cats have more immediate priorities.
"The worst thing I can do is go in and tell Alexis Jennings, 'We've gotta get in here and beat Tennessee and if we don't beat Tennessee, the world's gonna stop turning,' " Mitchell said. "She's got enough in her brain right now just knowing what she's got to do in ball-screen defense and what she needs to be doing in the press and what she needs to be doing in our offensive sets that I really haven't put a lot of emphasis on the game, not because we don't respect Tennessee or we don't think it's a very big deal."
Facing Tennessee is a big deal for another reason as well.
The Lady Volunteers, led by seniors Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison and juniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore, are dominant, physical and experienced in the frontcourt. Tennessee has an average rebounding margin of plus-nine and has shot 158 more free throws than its opponents this season.
"Where Tennessee poses a great challenge is very important," Mitchell said. "If we want to be a really good team at the end of the year, we're going to play teams like Tennessee that are going to go to the offensive glass and are going to be tough and they're going to be physical in the post. So it's a great opportunity for our post players to compete and to see where they stack up right now."
Regardless of the outcome, Thursday won't be the end of the line for the Cats or their developing post players.
"It's an important game. It's an important rivalry," Mitchell said. "I just haven't had a lot of time to work that angle because we've got so many things this team needs to do and improve on. We're trying. We've got 32 days until Senior Day and we're just trying to build every day on some improvement and see what we can become at the end of the season."
Matthew Mitchell didn't even need to get back to the Bluegrass to come up with a plan.
Within a couple hours of Kentucky's loss at LSU on Sunday, he had a clear picture of how to move forward. He wasted no time passing it along to his team.
"Before they left the airport after Baton Rouge, we really talked about what the week was going to look like," Mitchell said.
With an open date on Thursday ahead of a Sunday trip to face Missouri (11-8, 1-5 Southeastern Conference), the No. 14 Wildcats (15-4, 4-2 SEC) took an off day on Monday to regroup. Returning to practice early on Tuesday morning, they were challenged physically in the wake of a disappointing performance.
"We showed them on film where just the energy level and the approach to the game did not indicate how important one of these opportunities," Mitchell said. "You only get 16, and we didn't look like it was a very precious opportunity. We just tried to do some soul searching this week and figure out what we are going to do."
The soul searching is all targeted at addressing one core issue.
"Well, there is no in between with our team; it is truly a feast or famine proposition," Mitchell said. "When the energy is not there, we have no chance to make up for some of the mistakes that we are just going to make right now."
The mistakes, oftentimes, come from UK's talented but young frontcourt. Freshmen Alexis Jennings, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Alyssa Rice have all had their moments, but defensive lapses have been inevitable. Searching for an explanation, Mitchell is certain of one thing.
"I'm there with them and it's not physical in my mind," Mitchell said. "They are capable of everything that they need to do and I cannot place my finger on it. My suspicion is or my guess is that they don't trust their ability to play the way I'm asking them to play."
That's not altogether surprising. Playing in UK's fast-paced, high-pressure system isn't easy, especially not for young post players who have never been asked to do what Mitchell is now demanding of them.
"It's just uncomfortable," Mitchell said, "and I don't think any of them want to get beat and that's just the process you have to go through to play here is the understanding that you have to play hard enough and you've gotta accept that people are going to go by you some and your teammates are going to pick you up, taking a charge or forcing the ball out or forcing one more pass, whatever our rotation is able to produce."
Not making things any easier has been Bria Goss' month-long absence and a season-ending injury to Janee Thompson. UK's depth and margin for error have suffered as a result, but the Cats aren't about to make any excuses.
"The situation exists as it exists right now and there is no changing the circumstances," Mitchell said. "The only thing we can change right now is how we are going to deal with these circumstances, what are our actions going to be."
To that end, Mitchell is undertaking a balancing act. On one hand, he has no choice but to accept mistakes. On the other, he has to correct them as they happen.
"It is a fight every day," Mitchell said. "We have a very good group of young players and we just have to coach them up and they have to play hard. We have tried to address who we are going to be and what kind of effort are we going to give on Sunday and that is really what we are focused in on right now. We are going to have to give a really good effort on Sunday to win."
Missouri may have lost six of seven games, but Mitchell has seen a team that could give the Cats fits if they aren't prepared.
"They are a team where their strengths will definitely stretch our defense and we have been working hard this week to make some headway in the area of our defense," Mitchell said. "We will sure get some sort of indication of how we have done this week because they will test us in every way possible."
Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have always been the future of UK Hoops.
That future has arrived sooner than expected.
A season-ending injury to Janee Thompson on Sunday left the two sophomores with no choice but to step up into featured roles. The tears Epps and Harper cried for their teammate weren't even dry when they realized it.
"We both knew it was on as soon as Janee got took off on that stretcher," Epps said. "We both knew right there mentally that it was on, that we have to step up now. There's no more excuses."
Epps would have to shift from her customary jack-of-all-trades role over to being UK's permanent point guard. Harper would have to go from being a part-time standout to a full-time star for No. 10/11 Kentucky (15-3, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) to sustain its strong start.
One game in - a hard-fought 62-56 win over Florida (9-9, 1-4 SEC) - Epps and Harper are handling themselves just fine.
"I think tonight we both did great things on the offensive end," Epps said. "We still struggle on the defensive end with ball watching, which I'm sure we'll see tomorrow in practice for film, but we just have to step up on both ends because, like I said, it's all for Janee."
The Cats repeated their "play for Janee" mantra all night on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum, from the moment Thompson took the floor on crutches alongside head coach Matthew Mitchell on. The junior received a loud ovation from the crowd of 5,134 and watched from a few feet behind the UK bench.
With Thompson so close, Epps found herself wanting to ask advice of the player she's replacing. She'd have to settle for the occasional knowing look.
"There was times where I would look up and look at her," Epps said. "She would smile at me so I'm like, 'I'm doing all right.' "
All right for Epps meant 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and two turnovers. After an uneven first half, Epps was aggressive throughout the second stanza in scoring 14 points, following advice given by her head coach when he called her back for some final private words in the halftime locker room.
"He always tells me there's not too many people that can guard me," Epps said, "and I think I just really have to start believing that because when I get my feet in the paint that's creating shots for me, that's creating opportunities for my teammates and I just think I have to start believing in myself more."
Epps showed no shortage of self-belief in the final minutes, burying six clutch free throws in as many attempts over the final 2:15 to salt away the win. Still, Mitchell will be demanding more from her as she settles into her new role.
"We wouldn't have won the game without her," Mitchell said. "She just needs reps. I really believe this: I believe she can be one of the best point guards in this league. I think she can be one of the best point guards in the country, but she needs reps."
Harper, on other hand, remains in a familiar role on the wing, but she can no longer afford to show only flashes of her talent. The injury to Thompson, who Harper has known and played with since fifth grade, might have hit her harder than anyone, but Harper still has to step up.
In her 32 minutes against Florida, Harper did just that. She had 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds, as well a career-high six steals.
"She's developed so much," Mitchell said. "Last year she didn't get on the floor because she couldn't defend and now she's out there the whole game and just on a torrid steals pace."
Harper has a team-best 40 steals, including 20 over her last six games. She plans to keep her improvement on defense and offensive emergence going in honor of her friend and teammate.
"Now it's just all about playing for her because I know that she would want the best for us," Harper said. "I think about her all the time, I think about her every day and think she's my motivation to work harder in practice, do the little things, get in the gym extra and I think that's going to be contagious to the rest of the team."
It didn't take long for Matthew Mitchell to find a positive in Janee Thompson's horrific injury against South Carolina.
In fact, it was within a few hours of Thompson going down with a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that Mitchell found that silver lining.
"The outpouring of support from people literally from all over the country, it was an amazing experience," Mitchell said.
It was an experience, of course, that Mitchell would give most anything to not have gone through, but amount of people who reached out and the way in which they did made it one he won't forget.
"It was very uplifting to see that and just all of the support we received from all of the people who aren't even connected to our program who just saw it on television and sent their thoughts, prayers and support," Mitchell said. "We are a very grateful team and program and we are excited for Janee to start the recovery process and get back to full speed."
Thompson's recovery has already begun. After receiving initial treatment and a diagnosis in South Carolina, she was able to fly back to Lexington with her teammates on Sunday night. On Monday at noon, she underwent successful surgery with an eye on returning next year.
"She will miss the rest of the season, but we are extremely optimistic that by the time the players gather up for summer school in June that she will be fully participating and will not know that she was injured if everything goes like the doctors feel like it will go," Mitchell said. "We are very appreciative of our doctors here. They did a great job, as always."
Thompson has spent the week resting, but will return to class as soon as she is able. Once that happens, she'll assume an important role as a team leader.
"She has developed into an incredible example of sacrificing personal things that might have been holding her back as far as her development and just really buying into the program with honesty, hard work, discipline, being high-character, being a person of great preparation, being a person of high preparation, being a person willing to sacrifice," Mitchell said. "All of the things we try and teach, she has become a great part of and is a great example of that.
"She is a powerful force on our team and will continue to be that and so we are moving in a positive direction in what has been a tough situation."
But as the No. 10/11 Cats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) move in that positive direction, they'll have to do it without Thompson on the court. The junior was averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists as UK's point guard, making her loss a significant one in every way, but not one that can't be overcome.
"The way you deal with it is that you have a very talented group of players," Mitchell said. "We're not the most talented group of players left standing in the country, but we are a talented group. Janee makes us less talented because she's such a great talent and has been performing so well for our team, but it certainly does not mean we cannot go out and be a functioning basketball team and be our very best."
To that end, the Cats have adopted a new slogan in Thompson's honor: "Our B3st." It's a play on the year's theme of "Our Season" and Mitchell wore a shirt bearing the slogan to his pregame press conference on Wednesday. The team will do the same for warmups before Thursday's 7 p.m. ET matchup with Florida in Memorial Coliseum.
"The t-shirts are our one and singular goal for this season and this team," Mitchell said. "We need to see if we can possibly become the very best that this team can be and so we put the number three for the E and 'Our B3ST' is what we will continue to try to be and Janee will be a big part of that. It's just a way to honor her."
The other way the Cats can honor Thompson is by sustaining their strong start to the season even though Mitchell says their margin for error is slimmer now. No longer can they rely on Thompson to pick up the slack in practice or games when someone lacks energy. Instead, everyone must be focused at all times.
"It does need to heighten everyone's sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team," Mitchell said. "It does impact everyone from that standpoint."
Fortunately, Bria Goss is expected to reenter the lineup just as Thompson is leaving it. The senior guard and defensive stopper has missed a month with a broken left thumb, but is slated to play.
"That's a blessing that we can get her back," Mitchell said. "I don't know to what extent she is going to be able to perform. I can't give you a percentage. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. It's still tender and it's not 100 percent in the hand, but she is cleared to play and she is going to give it a whirl on Thursday night and that will help us tremendously."
Considering the test the Gators (9-8, 1-3 SEC) always present, Goss will be needed. Florida took two of three from UK a season ago, with the Cats winning the third matchup in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are coming off a 66-47 loss at Missouri, but Mitchell says to pay little attention to that game since Florida played without junior guard Carlie Needles.
The Cats, according to Mitchell, have approached practice accordingly.
"We have a huge challenge ahead of us so I have not seen us lacking focus yesterday (Tuesday)," Mitchell said. "I thought yesterday was a good day and a step forward. We need to have a tremendous day today and we need to have a terrific practice tomorrow before tomorrow night's game and we got to come out incredibly focused and energized to beat a very tough Florida team.
"One thing, it doesn't matter what Florida's record has been is now has been they just always seem to be extremely prepared. Coach (Amanda) Butler does a great job and I'm not expecting anything other than a very difficult game and we've got to find a way to be tough enough to win."
The top-ranked Gamecocks are outscoring opponents by more than 31 points on average and feature arguably the nation's most imposing frontline.
On Sunday, Kentucky faces the task of handing South Carolina its first loss on the road. The challenge, significant as it may be, isn't one that has the Wildcats cowering.
"We're certainly not going over there to give it the old college try and hang with them," Matthew Mitchell said. "We're going to go over there to win. It's a tall task, but we have a plan. I think if we go over there and execute our plan and work our tails off, we'll have a great chance to win."
Mitchell has reason for confidence.
His team, after all, enters Sunday's 1 p.m. ET trip to Columbia, S.C., with a No. 10 ranking, a 14-2 record and two wins over top-10 opponents. The Cats, in spite of playing without senior defensive stopper Bria Goss, are off to the same 3-0 start to Southeastern Conference play as South Carolina (15-0).
UK, in other words, is pretty good too.
"To think that we are some prohibitive underdog here and we don't have a chance to win - now could we go over there and lose? There is no question," Mitchell said. "If we don't play well. We are certainly not going over there to just give it all we've got and hopefully hang in there with them. We're going in there to win."
But to win, the Cats will have to adhere strictly to the plan Mitchell mentioned, especially inside. UK will be at a size disadvantage against the Gamecocks, who feature four players 6-foot-4 or taller and block an average of 6.2 shots per game, which means it will have compensate in other areas.
"We are going to have to play real strategically sound basketball, which you can't do in the post against them," Mitchell said. "You just can't go in there without a plan. You can't just go in and shoot the ball around the basket. You've got to have some focus on some technical things you need to do to guard the post. You can't just go chest to chest with them and challenge them."
The likes of Aleighsha Welch, Alaina Coates and freshman A'ja Wilson will have a field day if the Cats try that. Dawn Staley's group might be ranked higher than it ever has been before, but the team doesn't look all that different to Mitchell, and he means that in a good way. He would know since the Gamecocks are a permanent conference rival, meaning two annual matchups between the two teams.
"When you play somebody twice a year, you get to know them, and no matter where they're ranked, if they're ranked No. 1 or we have played them when they are unranked, it just doesn't matter," Mitchell said. "They're always real tough. Always play together, always play real hard, always make it tough on you to score. So really, they're doing the same things that South Carolina has become known for."
Rebounding, of course, is one of those things.
The Gamecocks are outrebounding opponents by an average of 11 per game, which is of particular concern considering the Cats were just bested on the boards 45-35 in a win over Auburn on Thursday. With that in mind, UK will go to work.
"We've just got to figure out a way to be a good box-out team," Mitchell said. "Listen, if we don't rebound well Sunday, it'll be a long day. They can just reach over you and go get the ball, so rebounding will be really important and we'll do everything that we can today and Saturday morning and Sunday morning to remind them and we'll go out there and see if we can make some improvements from Thursday night into Sunday afternoon."
To that end, Mitchell and his coaching staff reviewed film from the Auburn game and counted missed box-out assignments. The guilty parties were then assigned to run based on those missed assignments.
A few weeks ago, the Cats had to do something similar when turnovers became an issue. They have responded, most notably by committing 15 or fewer turnovers in three SEC wins, which suggest similar improvement on the glass is possible.
"This group has shown some ability that once they start focusing in on something, that they can do some things and correct some things," Mitchell said. "We've corrected our turnovers so far in league play, so hopefully, we can have that kind of improvement on rebounds."
UK Hoops is off to a quick start to the 2014-15 season, but rarely has that been the case in any single game.
The Wildcats have been consistently sluggish out of the gate, even in their best wins of the season, which Matthew Mitchell knew was unsustainable if they wanted to reach their goals.
On a bitterly cold Thursday night, UK reversed the trend.
"I thought we got off to a very good start," Mitchell said. "I will tell you the kids worked really hard this week on their games and on their minds. We tried to improve, so hopefully all of the hard work paid off with a good start."
Hosting Auburn, the Cats grabbed leads of 9-4 and eventually 21-10. The Tigers would battle back, but UK's lead never dipped below seven points en route to a 78-57 win in Memorial Coliseum to move to 14-2 (3-0 Southeastern Conference).
"I think we did a good job of starting off strong this game," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored 17 points due in large part to her five made 3s. "Usually we start out real flat or real slow, but we started off faster than we normally do, which got us off to a good pace."
UK's focus after a Sunday win over Ole Miss on improvement wasn't limited to getting off to a quick start.
In that victory over the Rebels, Mitchell was forced to rely on O'Neill, Janee Thompson, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper to play a combined 140 minutes due to unpredictable post play. All week and against Auburn, Kentucky's young bigs took steps forward.
"I thought we played a little bit better tonight at times," Mitchell said. "They worked real hard. They've worked really, really hard since our game Sunday. They put a lot of time into it. We still have a lot of improvement that we need to make, but we're working like crazy to try to get up to speed."
Included in that group is Azia Bishop, the veteran of the group. The senior, now trying to step into a leadership role, says she's never worked harder.
"(Assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou pushes us really, really hard," said Bishop, who had eight points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four steals. "We get in before practice, after practice, before games and he believes us a lot and he motivates us really well. So I think that this is the toughest year for me, but I think it's helping me and it's going to help me in the long run."
Though UK is more consistent in the backcourt, the guards haven't been excused from the hard work, most notably in taking care of the basketball. Through the first 10 games of the season, the Cats committed 20 or more turnovers six times. In the last six, they haven't done it once, including three straight in SEC play with 15 or fewer.
Considering Auburn was forcing 21.6 miscues per game with its full-court press and UK turned it over just 12 times against the Tigers, it's clear the Cats are on the right track.
"I'm just happy that we have been able to show some maturity in that area," Mitchell said. "I've really faulted the team throughout the year about our lack of maturity. It shows that they have taken it seriously."
With a trip to face an unbeaten, top-ranked and overwhelmingly big South Carolina team on Sunday looming, the next order of business is to address rebounding. UK was bested on the boards by a count of 45-35 against Auburn, but with the way the Cats dedicated themselves earlier this week, there's no reason to think they can't progress in that area against the Gamecocks.
"I can't tell you how hard the players and the coaches have worked this week and we're just fighting every day to try to get better and see if we can become a good team," Mitchell said.