Effort Strong as Mitchell Looks for More Defensively

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Two weeks into preseason practice, University of Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell has spent dozens of hours coaching this year’s squad about being efficient on offense and disciplined on defense, which he said Wednesday has a “long way to go.” But one thing he hasn’t had to coach this team on is effort, giving him confidence the defense will come together. 

“We had some good practices over the weekend and then have come back with some good sessions this week,” Mitchell said. “They just continue to be coachable … A long way to go on defense, that is going a little slow right now. But the players are working hard at it and I have a lot of confidence in how hard they will play, so I think they will be a good defensive team. But just a lot of teaching on defense this morning. Last night was a very good session with some special situations.”

The defense being a bit far behind isn’t out of the norm, according to Mitchell, who is entering his 10th season at the helm of the program. During his tenure, UK has had some of the best defensive teams in program history, ranking top 10 in the nation in turnovers forced six of the last seven seasons. To help, Mitchell and Co. have spent time doing competitive drills to sharpen up some defensive fundamentals. Tuesday night, the Wildcats simulated certain in-game situations, while Wednesday morning the team got in plenty of 3-on-3 reps. 

“Well, it’s both,” Mitchell said when asked if the special situations are solely for teaching or also to build competition. “You are trying to teach with 3-on-3 and give them enough reps where they can get good at all the different things defensively that they need to and then absolutely competition is very important in practice and it needs to be competitive. They need to understand that it is important to get a stop, it is important to score. So splitting them up into blue and white, that helps us out and we had a good 3-on-3 session this morning.” 

Some improvement defensively will naturally happen as Kentucky’s six newcomers continue to improve and gain confidence. One newcomer that seems to have turned the corner overall is true freshman guard Jaida Roper from Memphis, Tenn. Roper, who was a four-star prospect according to ProspectsNation.com, averaged 13.2 points, 5.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game her senior season at Houston High School. Although Mitchell says she is “in the same boat” with the rest of the team defensively, she has impressed the staff with other intangibles.  

“Jaida has really impressed me and she has come a long way since June,” Mitchell said. “I think she has made a huge jump the last two weeks, there has been a noticeable change. I have talked with Coach (John) Spurlock, our strength coach, and I think she is starting to find her footing a little bit in the weight room and that has helped her a little bit. I think she is in better shape. But she has some intangibles and a feel for the game that is impressive. She can make plays. She is really looking good in the ball screen right now with her poise and her decision making. She has a ways to go on defense, but she is in the same boat with a lot of us on that, but she has impressed me the last two weeks.”  

Roper says her improvement has been all about being coachable. 

“Coach always talks about coachability. As soon as he tells me something, I just try to learn it and understand it and go show it on the court,” Roper said. “I have been working on just finishing through contact really and just always looking for that post player and keeping my head up and feeding the ball to that post player. I am really excited for the season. It is going to be special this year.” 

The team will have an off day Thursday as Mitchell and seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator will travel to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville to take part in the annual Southeastern Conference Tipoff event. Fans can get behind-the-scenes photos, videos and more from the event by following @KentuckyWBB on Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat and Facebook.