First, we must look at where we were before Big Blue Madness and Coach Matthew Mitchell’s infamous MC Hammer dance. The 2012 season was one of the best ever for UK: 28-7 overall, with a perfect 18-0 record at home. Kentucky finished SEC with a 13-3 mark, and won the regular season SEC Championship. UK Hoops had the SEC Player of the Year (A’Dia Mathies), Freshman of the Year (Bria Gross), and Coach of the Year in Mitchell. Conversely, UK lost Keyla Snowden, Amber Smith and Crystal Riley to graduation, and Bra’Shey Ali transferred to Seton Hall. Collectively those players represented roughly 20% of Kentucky's rebounds and overall scoring.
All was not lost, however. As UK began the 2013 season, it returned four of its top five scorers, and a healthy Jennifer O’Neil at the point after she sat out the 2012 season with stress fracture in her right foot. Mitchell added freshman point guard and McDonald’s All-American Janee Thompson, along with transfers DeNesha Stallworth at center and Jalleah Sidney at forward. Kentucky entered the season with experience at every starting position, a critical element in the hyper-competitive SEC.
With this embarrassment of riches, how did Kentucky Hoops compare, both within the SEC and against the top four teams in the land (Baylor, Notre Dame, UConn, Stanford)? Also, how did UK compare to the Dirty Birds?
|School||2013 Avg Pts Per Game||2012 Avg Pts Per Game||2013 3 Pt %||2012 3 PT %||2013 FT %||2012 FT %|
|SEC Mean Average||67||64.5||30.80%||31.90%||68.00%||66.10%|
|Key Non-SEC Rivals||77.4||75.7||34.40%||33.30%||73.00%||74.40%|
Key take-aways from an ungodly amount of offensive stats:
While UK beat the SEC Mean average in all three listed categories (points per game, 3-point shooting and free throw shooting), we’ve got quite a bit of work to do in catching up to our non-conference rivals across the board.
While UK’s average points per game had a solid increase versus last year (+1.9%), Kentucky lost ground to the 2012 and 2013 SEC tourney champs -- Texas A&M +3%, 2012 titlist Tennessee, +4.9% -- as well as the overall league average of +3.9%.
The average points per game jump gets more pronounced outside the SEC. This is no doubt impacted by the league’s emphasis on strong defense and high levels of athleticism. That said, UK Hoops need to put on its Big Girl panties and score more if the 'Cats are going to compete at the highest levels.
At the start of the season, Mitchell made it very clear he thought this team was a championship caliber team. The final results:
SEC Regular Season: 13-3, second place behind Tennessee (13-3 two years in a row?) Weird.
SEC Championship: Lost championship game to A&M.
NCAA Tournament: 2-seed, lost in the Elite Eight to eventual National Champion UConn
Post-Season Awards: A’Dia Mathies was Co-SEC Player of the Year, sharing the honor with Meighan Simmons (UT). Bria Goss won SEC Freshman of the Year.
So, what DID UK Hoops gain during the 2013 Season?
Increase in key stat performances to include overall scoring (+1.9%), 3-point shooting (80 basis point improvement) and free throw shooting (280 basis point improvement).
Key playing time and experience for UK's starters (team ranking in parenthesis):
Jeniffer O’Neill: Scored 381 points, averaging 10.9 per game (3); shot 35.6% from beyond the arc (2), and 71.4% from the charity stripe (t6); led the team in assists with 99, as well as turnovers with 103.
DeNesha Stallworth: Scored 438 pts (2), averaging 12.5 points per game (2); shot 29.4% from 3-point range (5); had the second best performance on the team in terms of free throws (80.5%), rebounds (6 per game), blocks (52), and turnovers (79).
Bria Gross: Scored 318 point (4), averaging 8.8 points per game; shot 28.0% from 3-point range (6) and lead the team in free throw performance at 84.3%; Goss averaged 2.9 rebounds per game (5) and was UK's third best thief with 57 steals on the year.
Samarie Walker: Scored 313 points (5), averaging 8.7 points per game; Walker led the team in overall shooting (52.4%), rebounds (8.1) and steals (72), but she has the unique honor of being a perfect goose-egg from the 3-point line -- No, really, I double checked, and Walker didn’t attempt a single 3-point attempt for the second straight year.
The incredibly cool sight of hockey-style substitutions; 40 Minutes of Dread, indeed.
What did Kentucky lose? Two words, five syllables: A’DIA MATHIES.
Mathies was the player on which Matthew Mitchell built the program. In her senior year, she led the team in both overall points (579), and 3-point shooting (42.2%). She was our second best thief, and shared the wealth with her teammates, coming in with 80 assists on the year. Remember how last year’s seniors represented 20% of our scoring? The Iroquois High School product single-handedly represents 21% of our overall scoring this year. She was the player everyone knew and everyone wanted to beat. In short, she was our heartbeat and will be very, very, VERY hard to replace.
Where do we go from here?
UK returns five of its six key players. They represent 59% of Kentucky's overall points, 54% of rebounds (YAY). The five returnees also represent 71% of the 'Cats' turnovers (less, yay).
Azia Bishop, Janee Thompson, Bernisha Pinkett and Jelleah Sidney will definitely be keys in UK's rotation.
Mitchell has not one, but TWO McDonald’s All-American’s joining the squad next year -- Linnae Harper, a 5-star guard, ranked the No. 2 point guard in the country, and Makayla Epps, a 4-star point guard, ranked as the tenth best lead guard in the nation. UK also has a 6-foot-0 four-star player in Kyvin Goodwin-Rogers, Epps' teammate at Marion County (and daughter of former UofL star Tick Rogers), which will give the Wildcats some additional needed height at center.
- Note: Makayla Epps – yes, THAT EPPS – being introduced at Big Blue Madness next year may actually result in fans exploding in blue blooded glee. The idea of having Anthony Epps’ daughter wearing KENTUCKY across her chest is very, very heady stuff.
What of "The Big Three?" The stars that held onto the top of the polls (and every headline) so tightly all season long? Baylor's Brittney Griner - gone; Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins - gone; Delaware's Elena Della Donne - gone.
Stefanie Dolson (UConn), Odyssey Sims (Baylor), Meighan Simmons (Tennessee) and Shoni and Jude Schimmel (UofL)? All returning and ready to make our lives miserable.
Pre-Season way too early rankings? UK is No. 6, behind UConn, Duke, UT, Stanford, and Maryland.
How does this all sum up for Mitchell and his team of Blue Bloods? 2013 was a great year. UK, though, loses the lynchpin of its team for the last three years. This may turn out to be a case of gaining more than we lose, though. The 'Cats have great returning and incoming players. 2014 will not be a cake walk, but I for one firmly believe Mitchell has the players to make this the year Kentucky cuts down the nets, both in Duluth and Nashville.
Thanks for reading, and until Big Blue Madness: GO CATS! GO BIG BLUE!