Kentucky Head Coachhas accomplished things here at UK, that some have felt impossible. UK is now sitting as the favorite in the SEC for Women's Basketball, right beside Tennessee. Or are they ahead? Without Pat Summitt, can Tennessee be what they once were?
Let's face the facts. Summitt is the all-time leader in wins in NCAA history with 1098. That's the best in history for both women AND men. For 38 years she strolled, stomped, sauntered, and sprinted the sidelines like no other, and built Tennessee into the standard for women's college basketball in the country. Is Mitchell up for that challenge? Does he have what it takes to assume the throne that was vacated by Summitt's retirement?
Let's look at what has happened so far in Mitchell's tenure. First off, Mitchell has now entered his sixth year at UK. That seems a bit bizarre as only yesterday it seems like Mickie DeMoss, a colleague and former coach who was with Mitchell on Tennessee's staff in 1999-2000 was the Head Coach here at UK. However, in his time here at UK, Mitchell has won 132 games to date, while losing 58. Nothing spectacular there, unless you take into account that for the first two years of Mitchell's tenure, UK lost almost as much as they won. With that said, Mitchell has never posted a losing record as UK head coach, and has had only one losing record in his career, that coming at Morehead State.
Mitchell is in his eighth year of coaching, and has gotten no higher than the Elite Eight of the women's NCAA Tourney. Summitt reached her first Final Four in the very first year of the Dance, but fell to Louisiana Tech. However, that was 9 years into her career. Women's college basketball was in it's infancy in those days, and Summitt came from a state where the women played with 6 players, and defenders couldn't cross half court. She coached in the dark ages, and was a pioneer of the sport.
Summitt didn't win her first title until 12 years into her career at UT. After that, Tennessee was never really out of the National Championship picture for the rest of her tenure. They became a perennial powerhouse that had a say in almost every championship while under her leadership.
Comparatively speaking, Mitchell seems to be on par with the legend that is Pat Summitt. What comes next is where the situation gets interesting.
Mitchell is just one of many inside the Summitt coaching tree. Much like Rick Pitino in the NCAA, Summitt has a legacy that will live on long after she becomes the answer to trivia questions about coaching history. Her disciples are many, and they are talented. Just within the ranks of the SEC are Mitchell, Nikki Caldwell at LSU, and now Holly Warlick has succeeded Summitt at Tennessee. So is Mitchell the heir apparent? Or will one of Summitt's other success stories get in his way?
First off, Warlick has zero history to base anything on, so to put her in the conversation at this point is a stretch to say the least. While Tennessee is ahead of UK in the SEC standings right now, Warlick has not yet had a chance to establish herself outside Summitt's shadow. Summitt herself still travels with the team occasionally, so her presence is still there as Warlick herself does the actual coaching.
That leaves Caldwell. Caldwell started her head coaching career out west at UCLA. She became the head coach in 2008, and by the following year, had UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. In 2011, she was announced as the coach at LSU, and immediately became a thorn in Mitchell's side, as she beat Kentucky twice in a row in her first two games. She has LSU moving toward where they need to be, and has all of the capabilities of a successful coach herself.
No matter how anyone approaches it, Summitt will always be the measuring stick for the SEC in particular, women's basketball in general, and for some forward thinkers out there, college basketball as a whole. No one else could consider themselves to be there at the very beginning and be able to cite the success that she has enjoyed.
But what of Mitchell? Is he headed down the same path? Is he on a time line with destiny to replace Summitt and become the new standard bearer for SEC women's basketball coaches? Will Kentucky become the next Mecca of Women's Hoops? Is "40 Minutes Of Dread" going to become the new measuring stick for defense?
Much like John Calipari before him, Mitchell has taken another coaches brainchild and brought it to his purposes and his style. Where Calipari has reshaped, reformed, and reutilized the Dribble Drive Motion offense, Mitchell has taken Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes Of Hell" and made it his own. Kentucky now presses, runs a trap-press, runs a zone press, and has placed various versions of Richardson's hard-nosed defensive style in games as the opponent fits.
Kentucky has been unfortunately kept under the radar by some things they can control, and some they cannot. The Baylor Bears have stopped UK dead in their tracks every time they meet recently, mostly due to the efforts and presence of Brittney Griner, an athletic freak of nature who fortunately will not remain at Baylor much longer. But she has put Baylor on the map, and they may very well be looking at their second straight national championship. For Kentucky, they have to be able to win against that level of competition, Griner or no. If they are face to face with Baylor again, Kentucky has to make their mark.
Right now, Mitchell, Warlick, Caldwell, Amanda Butler at Florida, Dawn Staley at South Carolina, as well as some others are now the elite of the profession in the SEC. And although some have had longer tenures, (Georgia head coach Andy Landers has been there 33 years, Melanie Balcomb has been at Vandy for 10), none of these coaches can claim success at the championship level, nor can they claim success at the top of their profession like Summitt. She will be what their lifetime status in the sport will be measured by. Of all those coaches, Mitchell seems to be sitting in the best spot to make the move. His resources at Kentucky will be nearly limitless, and his recruiting prowess is what got him the job in the first place. He has the tools, and he is moving the program in the right direction.
Is Mitchell going to get there? All indicators say that he is on his way. He can now walk into any gym, living room, or TV station in the country and be recognized as one of the sport's leading figures. If he combines the talent he can get, with the coaching he can do, and a few things fall in the right direction, we may be witnessing the dawn of a new regime in the women's game today. Will Mitchell be the next Summitt? That would be a virtual impossibility. Standing ready to take that baton that Summit has now passed? Definitely.