Matthew Mitchell Media Day Press Conference
Kentucky Women’s Basketball Media Day
Memorial Coliseum – Lexington, Ky.
Oct. 21, 2016
Kentucky Head Coach Matthew Mitchell
COACH MITCHELL: We're excited for the season and looking forward to a great year. The players have worked extremely hard to progress to the point where we are now. We still have a long way to go with several days before the season starts. But the work that they have put in to prepare has been considerable. It's been high quality, and it's been done with great effort and great attitude.
And so really, really looking forward to what we can become. Every time you get together this year and talk about the season, there's just so many things that have to happen to bring a team together and that happens each and every year.
So this year is no different in that respect. We will try our very best to serve our players in the best way possible to figure out what's the absolute best way for this team to win ballgames and have another successful season at Kentucky women's basketball.
Looking forward to it and happy to answer any questions you might have.
Q. With all the changes, coaching staff, athletes, etc., how challenging has it been for you at this point to bring everything together?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, at this point, it's not challenging at all, because I think we have great people involved right now. I think it's definitely time for us to move forward with this team, and so many positive things have happened for us in the last six months, and it's been well documented and much discussed, everything that led to the last six months.
I just think it's time now for us to really get excited and get focused on the players who have shown a tremendous commitment to our program and are working so hard and are so excited to go to practice with every day.
The challenges right now, really, are for me, unrelated to what we have all sat in this room and discussed many times and in other rooms many times. So the challenge that does face us now is how do we put this team together and how does this particular edition of the Wildcats become successful and no two teams are the same.
And so you have core principles that we have built the program on, and we have values and standards that we want to uphold every year that don't change, but every year, there's a different cast of players and coaches and it never stays the same. So you must make sure that this particular team is focused in in a way that helps them be their best.
So that's the challenge right now, nothing that's happened in the past. We've learned some great lessons and we've been strengthened by it and we're really moving forward at this point.
Q. So how is this year's team going to be different in terms of style of play than last year's?
COACH MITCHELL: I think our program definitely has a personality of being, when we're at our best, we're blue-collar and we're hard workers and we are playing harder than our opponent, and that I think will again be when we're at our best with this particular group.
But I just think that our returners really committed to improvement and I think you're going to see if you haven't been to any practices yet, and last year was your last point of reference, I think it will be visible to you today to just see how much everyone from Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator to right down the line to Alyssa Rice looks different; Maci (Morris) and Taylor (Murray) have really made huge jumps since they have arrived as freshmen, now going into their sophomore year, they look a lot different. I think Makenzie Cann really benefitted from last season and being in practice every day.
So all of the people who have been here have made tremendous strides, and then our newcomers have worked really hard, too. I think we can be very explosive offensively and right now just trying to figure out how we'll play defensively at our very best.
I know this about them up to this point: They are going to play really hard and they are going to try to do everything you ask them to do. It will be up to us coaches to figure out the best way to put them in the position to be successful.
Q. What kind of role do you see for Makenzie on this team?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, Makenzie is a very versatile player. The thing that I like most about her is that she is willing to do whatever it takes. So she will just say, "I'll do whatever you need me to do," and that is very, very valuable on a team. And so her size allows her to do different things. Her skill set allows her to do a few things.
And I think that she's going to impact us in every phase of the game. She has great size so she can -- and she's really gotten stronger. It's amazing to see her physical development and her speed, quickness, agility, is so much different than when she first arrived. And so she has some strength to her, she has some tenacity which makes her a physical defender.
So at 5-11 with really good length, she can swing from the wing to the small forward and kind of from the three to the four. And so I think that she'll just be a player that does whatever we ask her to do. Really shooting has been something she's been known for throughout her career, but she's a lot more than that for our team.
But what I love about her is I never go into a practice questioning her desire to help her team. And so sometimes you'll have -- you may have a conversation with a player where she feels like she needs to do certain things a certain way so she can impact the team, and you have to convince her that she can do more. You don't have to do that with Makenzie. I'm here to do whatever the team needs and has just played so hard and worked so hard.
So I'm looking for her. I'm so excited we have three more years with her because she will be a very good player for us this year, but her future, she'll just continue to get better because of her attitude and her work ethic.
Q. You mentioned several times that in practice, you've not had to coach effort with this group. Is that something that organically happened, or did you have a conversation with them before you got started and then that really took hold, or how did that happen that they have all come together and been able to give you what you want out of them in terms of effort?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, I think it goes back to them. I think you give the credit to them. You don't give the credit to me. You give the credit to who they are at their core and what their character is, and so you get a group of people which can be rare, and that's why I'm so appreciative of it at this point; that just want to do their best.
So that goes into the decisions that they have made on what kind of person they want to be. It goes back to what background they have and what kind of investment others have made into their life and hopefully we will continue to have that mindset because it is -- you can really go in and coach basketball, and you can really go in and talk to them about what they need to do to get better as a player, because they are handling -- and people make mistakes and we have to address things here and there. But even when they are making mistakes, there's an attitude of just resilience and bounce back, accept the coaching, move forward.
So I think you credit them as people. It's a great, great group of young people who are a lot of fun to coach.
Q. How big do you want the rotation to be ideally and how close are you to getting to that point?
COACH MITCHELL: I think that if you have some veteran players, the rotation doesn't have to be really big as long as we play smart, and as long as they are in terrific shape. And so they are in very good condition. They have worked really, really hard to do that.
And so if conditioning is not a factor, and desire is not a factor, then you start to move into basketball IQ, situational IQ, knowing what's a good play, what's a bad play. And so your veterans help you with those situations.
But I really think our bench can extend out to eight or nine and that's realistic. And anything beyond that would be fantastic. But it is definitely going to be a work-in-progress with the bench. I think that the veterans are going to have to do a really good job early on but I really like what we can become over the next two or three months as we develop towards conference season.
I think that some of these newcomers that don't have a lot of experience are really intelligent, work really hard, understand where they are supposed to be, very coachable, and so that gives them a chance to make an impact.
So it's a work-in-progress right now. But you know, you want enough depth where if there's a call that doesn't go your way or somebody rolls an ankle or whatever may happen, you'd like to have some depth, there's no question about it.
And so we're working hard to develop the bench, but I've got great confidence that we'll get that done.
Q. You have a couple of walk-ons. Walk-ons usually don't get a lot of playing time. Can you tell us what their role will be, generally speaking?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, we've just been really fortunate to -- and I've called it a blessing. We were able to get some people here on this campus that can move and can -- and that's really for us, if you can move and you're coachable and you work hard, well probably you find a place where you can bring some value to the team.
And so it's been amazing to watch these kids come in here and how hard they work, and what gives them all a chance to really help us and impact us in a positive way is how hard they work and then God's given them enough that they can come in and do some things.
So it's been a remarkable thing to watch, and I'm excited to see what we can become. It is different than anything else we've done in the previous nine years, but it's been a lot of fun to watch those kids and to watch them come every day.
And right now, what I'm just trying to do is to make sure they understand, we're not doing anybody any favors here. We're not playing mind games with people. These kids are out there and are working hard and have good speed and good quickness and can help us.
So we'll see. Time will tell. There's a lot of work between now and that happening. A lot of things people have to work hard and pay attention and accept coaching, but that's what they have shown that they are willing to do so far. So we'll see how that goes.
Q. Makayla said yesterday that she sort of liked the idea that people were sleeping on you guys. Do you think this team relishes that underdog role in some way?
COACH MITCHELL: Yeah, I don't know, I don't know how that will play out. You guys know me enough, I don't get really tied into what others are saying or what's happening outside the building or how other people perceive us or what people are thinking.
Any motivation that Makayla Epps has that is positive that she feels like is going to help the team -- I tell you this, I feel like Makayla has a really good pulse on this team. I know she really cares about her teammates. I know she has developed so much as a person now talking about what a great leader she is and person she is and student. I mean, she's just developed in all areas, including her game.
And so if that's driving the team forward in a positive way, I'm all for it. I can promise you, I'm not sitting around talking about what other people are saying about us, because we just had so much we need to do, and we need to stay so focused on the right way to do things and what this particular team needs.
I just never found a lot of value in listening to other things, and that was one of the difficult things in the spring was that so much negativity, you've just got to really work hard to block that out. Because we know who we are and we know the character of these kids.
I think we've got a coaching staff that understands what we have to do to be successful and there are no guarantees that we will. So we have to go to work every day thinking about our team.
I've always thought that feeling disrespected or any type of emotional thing really kind of wears off early. You see people jacked up before a game and fired up and once that ball goes in the air, it's about what kind of plays you're making and how can you stay focused and can you do your job the correct way.
Just over the years of experience, I try not to -- I've tried it before earlier in my career. Trust me, I've tried to use bulletin board material and all that stuff. I just don't find that that's effective for Kentucky and for us. We really need to stay laser-locked on what this particular team needs to do to be successful and do that day after day.
Q. What role do you anticipate for Jaida Roper?
COACH MITCHELL: Jaida (Roper) is somebody we were so excited that she wanted to come to Kentucky back in the spring; and she needed a place and we needed a player. And it really -- that made everybody happy.
So the Ropers were happy with Kentucky and Kentucky was happy with the Ropers, and we loved her and respected her for seeing who we were, and what Kentucky really was in joining our family. So that made her special to me just from that standpoint.
And you know, as she came through the summer, like a lot of freshmen, struggled at times, just trying to get up to speed; and trying to have patience with her as we do with the freshmen. But it's been amazing, over the last two weeks, she's really seemed to -- it sort of clicked. And she's played really well offensively. Still behind defensively, which that's just normal for a freshman, and I'm not sure when that will catch up. We have got to do a good job of making sure we put her in the position to be successful defensively and continue to work with her fundamentals.
But has been impressive with her -- she's got a lot of moxy. She's got a lot of confidence that's good. She's been extremely coachable.
One thing that's valuable as a freshman is if you can receive coaching: Hey, Jaida, I want you to do this instead of that, you don't have to go back and tell her three or four times. Sometimes you have to do that with a freshman. She's been a very quick learner. I don't know if it's -- we've all been discussing this. I don't know if it's a combination of her conditioning is kind of kicking in and making her feel a little more confident, but she's made some really good decisions.
She's a good decision-maker with the ball. Has been tough. She's not a real big guard but she's been tough and crafty around the basket which has impressed me, and her shot is looking better. She really needs to work on her shot and continue to -- she needs to be able to knock down open shots. I think her teammates are going to be able to get her open shots and a lot of us on the team right now need to be able to make those when it presents itself.
But I've been real impressed with her development and I think she can be a real factor for us if she continues to improve as much as she has in the past two weeks.
Q. Everybody that I've talked to has said something to the effect of Maci Morris has shown dramatic improvement in the offseason. What have you seen from her and where did she get better?
COACH MITCHELL: Yeah, it's again, sort of indicative of the team. She's really improved in all areas. That's going to be one that I think everybody is going to go, wow. She really looks -- she's put on some muscle. She's definitely improved in her speed agility quickness, athletic explosiveness is there, and she worked her tail off this summer and in this fall, and she is in phenomenal shape.
She is shooting the ball at an elite level. She is a complete player right now. She's moving great on defense. She can score at mid-range at the bucket, three. Her ball handling, really committed to her ball handling this summer. I just think that she's rounding into a very complete player, and the way she's shooting the ball is going to make her a difficult -- if that continues, is going to make it difficult for to you game plan her because she's not just a shooter. She's not a she's-just-a-shooter-so-we're-going-to-take-her-out-of-it. She's making a lot of plays in practice and in every phase of the game.
So she really has I think given everybody a lot of confidence. You know, everybody's talking about Makayla and Evelyn. Maci has practiced at as high a level as anybody and really looks good, and really excited to see her play this season. I think it's going to be a very good one if she continues to keep her mind right and working the way that she is. I just think it's going to be a great year for her.
Q. Is the Commonwealth of Kentucky producing more SEC-level athletes now?
COACH MITCHELL: I think in my experience, so now we're going 14 years of me being in the Commonwealth and then about, you know, 17 almost being around the SEC as a coach or staff member and watching the league.
When I first got in the league at Tennessee and Florida, there were a lot of really good players from the state at different places. Beth Vice was down at Alabama and Jennie Benningfield was at Vanderbilt. There were kids kind of sprinkled throughout the league, Ukari Figgs had been at Purdue and Kyra (Elzy) had been at Tennessee.
I thought late 90s, early 2000s was a really good time. And then we hit a streak where we were producing some very good players but there wasn't this depth that there is now. I mean, I think we're back into a cycle of where there's a really good depth in the Commonwealth of Division I players. It's a good time even as you look down through the 19 and 20 class, there's some really good players in the state.
So I do, I think it's a good time for the Commonwealth for girls basketball.
Q. What encourages you about the team's chemistry with all these different faces? Who has stepped up?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, the chemistry is so good because a lot of them are giving to each other. And I think the people who have joined -- so obviously the people who remained are our core six, were really strong people and really wanted to be here and really love Kentucky. And so they were -- they withstood a lot. So you're pretty confident they want to be here and believe in what's going on.
And then the quality of the other six who have walked in the door is just really amazing. And I feel really fortunate and blessed that we have gotten involved with these high-caliber people. And so I think the returning six were really grateful that six more would walk through the door and that would be people that wanted to make a contribution in some shape, form or fashion.
You know, we were all together for dinner last night, and it's just a really fun group to be around. They seem to really care for each other and appreciate each other.
So I would say that the returning six had to have some -- had to step out on some little ledge of faith there to accept the others, but the other six had to have a great attitude coming in, too.
So I just think you have to give credit to everybody and it's -- we will be successful because of the caliber of the people that we're dealing with, and it's been fun to be a part of.
Q. The whole #ONE theme for this year, how did that come about and what does it mean to you?
COACH MITCHELL: Well just right now, we have to do it together. We can't -- we're not going to -- we have a talented group but we probably don't have the most talented team in the country and so we are going to have to become the best team that we can to be -- get where we want to go.
And you know, we just really thought that was important for this particular team to come together, one unit, working hard for each other every day understanding that we're all connected. We can't have lapses in responsibility and we can't have lapses in attitude and we can't have lapses in effort. It really has to be one unit marching forward every day. And so it's really important for this team.
Q. Alyssa (Rice) being the vice chair for the student athlete SEC team they put together, what qualities does she have that made her such a good candidate for that?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, she is really high character, really intelligent, does great in the classroom, has a lot of smarts about her, and then she has a great way of dealing with people.
I was not surprised. I think she has a future in diplomacy. If they want something, they send Representative Rice. They always think it's hard for me to tell Alyssa no because of how much respect I have for her. The team already knew she was good in these roles before everybody in the SEC did.
I always get tickled when -- I can always tell when there's a request being made when Rice comes through the door, and "Coach, I need to talk to you about something."
So her team respects her and knows that I respect her. And she's just, you know, high, high-quality person, great family, one of those real special individuals that you're fortunate enough to coach. Really great person.
Q. What are your emotions toward the core six, and does it change how you approach the season, the fact that they stuck it out?
COACH MITCHELL: Yeah, I don't know if you're -- how human you are if you don't have some kind of real attachment and appreciation. I can tell you, I love those kids. A lot of tough times. A lot of hard days that you are trying to figure out exactly what's going on and they just were rock solid throughout that, and yeah, so I love them. I love those kids and I love the six that came through. Love this team. They are remarkable young women.
So I'm very motivated to do the best job that we can. We're working really hard to make this a very successful season. So we're excited for every one of them. Those players that stayed and the players that have joined up are very special people.
Q. Specifically what impressed you about Jessica (Hardin) during this whole process?
COACH MITCHELL: I was amazed that, you know, here is someone who has been -- as I used to say at Mississippi, walking the halls, whenever we would find a good football player who was a big guy and the coach would say, "How is this guy walking the halls around here." (Laughter) Couldn't understand that.
I was watching her practice one day this summer and I was like, I don't know why I didn't sign you when you were coming out of high school. That was bad on my part. Because it's amazing, she's very quick. She's very, very fast.
So like from day one, when she had no conditioning and no base whatsoever, and we're putting her through footwork drills, Coach John Spurlock is our strength and conditioning coach. He's like, "Coach, she has very quick feet." She and Taylor, and Taylor is very quick, have very quick feet and she doesn't have the stamina and the conditioning that Taylor has but she has a lot of quickness. She's a really fine shooter and you know, she's just rusty.
It's just the game is moving faster than intramurals moved last year down at the Johnson Center. It just moves a little bit faster. But I think that was the biggest thing for me is that this good of an athlete and good basketball player was going to school at Kentucky. It's amazing that someone like that was just going to school here.
We're going to have to be patient. She's not going to look All-SEC the first month of the season. I think it's going to take some time and we're going to have to be very patient with her. But I've got a strong belief in her. I've got a really strong belief in her ability. She's just fast, quick, tough, tenacious and can shoot. She's really shooting the three; if you're driving the ball and you kick it to her, she can step in and she can make that, and that's going to be valuable on this team. We have got some guards that can break you down, and somebody that can make threes is valuable.
So we'll keep working with her every day to bring her up to speed, but that was the thing, just her athletic ability was a very pleasant surprise. I was very happy to see she is as athletic as she is.
Q. Did she ask why you didn't sign her?
COACH MITCHELL: She's much too nice of a person to stick the needle in right there. But I just wanted to make sure she knows she belongs. She's shown up, and if she will not talk herself out of it, just talk herself into it; that she can do it, because she can, she can do it. She can help us and can be a good player here for two years.
Q. Are you harder on those walk-ons -- they sort of arrived and decided to help and add depth and do all these things. Is it still hard work? Is it harder or hard work for them?
COACH MITCHELL: I think we're trying to have patience with them and the situation, and so it's very hard for them. It's very hard for them to get up to speed but they are young and they are hungry and they have come a million miles.
So Jess and Rachel (Potter) had the benefit of us knowing about them, and not a lot of kids are on campus in the summer, not a lot of kids come to summer school and are around. And we were just fortunate to know Rachel and Jess, and so they had that benefit of those eight weeks, which helped them.
And then Paige (Poffenberger) and Shae (Halsel), you know, showed up at a tryout I think it was August 30th, I think it was. So we added the tryout of however many players. We chose those two because we felt like they could move, and then we didn't know what we would have there.
Those two kids, I don't know what kinds of players they are going to be. They are going to be incredible shape because they go as hard as they can go every single day with zero complaints, and those two amaze me.
So I don't know how hard it is for them, but they are going as hard as they can go, and it helps our practices. I mean, it just -- it really helps us when everybody, you're not begging people to play and you're not, you know, saying, you know, sprint the floor, run the floor.
So I haven't had to teach those two kids, so they have slowed us down none; they have actually added to the quality of practice. What they will contribute on the court, it's like I told them, hey, sky is the limit. Let's just go for it. See what happens. Two months ago, you had no idea you were going to be on the team; so let's don't act like you're supposed to be All-SEC right now.
But they have made great contribution, great kids, hungry, want it, appreciative of the opportunity, it's an amazing turn of events. But they have earned the admiration and the trust and the affection of their teammates. Their teammates, they have really been great additions for our program.
Q. Has Lin Dunn had to calm you down or correct you on anything?
COACH MITCHELL: The opposite is true. Got to calm her down. Got to calm her down. She is fired up and ready for the season. And so -- or maybe (Niya) Butts or (Kyra) Elzy have to in to calm both of us down, because if you could come in our office right now, we've got more stuff written up on the walls ready to go. We are ready for the season. Coach Dunn is ready to go. No one's calm, I can tell you that. We're fired up.
Q. Matthew, how gratifying was it that Kelly Clarkson likes you?
COACH MITCHELL: Well, for just a moment, I'll have to let you know, that was a big moment, because I love Kelly Clarkson. She is the true American Idol (laughter), and huge fan, and I wish I'd had more time to bask in that glow, so we've been practicing hard and I haven't really had time to process it. But for the record, huge Kelly Clarkson fan.
Thanks, everybody. Go Cats.
Kentucky Player Quotes
#4 Maci Morris, G
On working on your overall game this off-season…
“I’ve really emphasized ball handling, so I’ve just been working really hard on that. Also, just trying to be more versatile off of the dribble, so that way it’s harder for people to guard me.”
On team chemistry…
“Yeah, we’ve been working really hard. When you have people that work hard and that have the ability to lift each other up, that just makes the chemistry a lot stronger. We all get along, and we’re always goofing off in the locker room. We just really have a good time together and enjoy each other’s presence.”
On familiarity with the other girls on the team from the state of Kentucky…
“I’m really familiar with Jessica Hardin. We played against each other a lot in high school. We also played on the same AAU team, so I’ve known her. Rachel, she’s from the mountains too, so I’ve heard her name. I don’t really know her as well, but I’ve heard her name. So it’s just really good having a lot of Kentucky girls that love to represent our state.”
#13 Evelyn Akhator, F
On team development in the off-season…
“During the summer we actually put in work with our ball handing, shooting and defense. It’s been really great especially with the freshmen. As a team, we’re working really, really hard to become the best.”
On where this team is mentally right now…
“It’s really amazing with the six of us, and also with the six incoming players. It’s great because it seems like we’ve been together for two years. So, together our chemistry has really been amazing.”
On the new coaching staff…
“I really like it. Especially the new coaching staff being there for us and supporting us on and off the court. They’re really there for us. When we make mistakes they try to bring us up and personally try to encourage us. They’re really all up in our business making sure that we eat right and get enough rest. They’re always there for us. It’s an amazing coaching staff.”
#25 Makayla Epps, G
On individual expectations …
“It’s my last year playing for the Blue and White and it’s kind of emotional that I’m growing up. I want to go out every game and give it all I have for my myself and for my team. I would like to go for another triple-double because that was pretty cool. But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s about the team as a whole.”
On getting past the turmoil …
“We’re past that we lost a couple of people towards the end of last season and are practicing really hard with the people that are with us now. We have a really great group of 12 girls. We’re all on the same page and want to work for ourselves, Coach Mitchell, the coaching staff and also the fans. Whenever we get in Memorial, we’re going to show them that it’s not as bad as it once seemed.”
On helping bring in the recruits …
“I think we played a big part when coach had tryouts. We have been helping them every day and they’ve been helping us. The more players we have, the more we can get up and down and play five-on-five against each other and our practice guys. It’s a good atmosphere to have 12 players for rotation and gives us a great feeling when everyone is on the same page.”