Earlier this afternoon, Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell met with the press to officially kick off his ninth season patrolling the sidelines at Memorial Coliseum.
Mitchell sounded optimistic about this year’s team in his opening statement.
"Just really, really excited about this edition of the Wildcats. Very, very optimistic about what they can become. They have an enormous amount of potential", he said.
For Kentucky to reach that potential, it needs to two of its veterans to return to the court and pick up where they left off last season. Steady point guard Janee Thompson was having a fantastic 2014-15 campaign before a gruesome leg injury sidelined her for the rest of the season. Mitchell said that Thompson’s recovery is right on schedule but she is still not completely healed.
"She's able to practice at a pretty high level. She's not 100 percent, but she is at a really high functional level right now. She's not -- if we have two practices in a day, she only practices once. There's some limitations on her as far as volume goes as we work her back in", said Mitchell.
Another key cog that Kentucky will be missing at the start of the season is Makayla Epps, who is still serving a suspension for off the court misconduct. Mitchell offered some details about when expects Epps to return to the court.
"Well, what we have laid out is at a minimum, she missed Madness, she's going to miss the preseason games, she's going to miss the first game. That was laid out at the beginning of her suspension."
Mitchell hopes that the experience ends up being a key life lesson for Epps.
"You know, Makayla's challenge has been for this to be a transformative event in her life. So transform from a person who would meet the standard, whatever that may be, through talent, and start to exceed whatever the standard is and start having a real high personal standard, and that comes through great decision making, really strong work ethic, embracing the leadership that you have because of what your talent brings and your personality brings."
Along with Linae Harper, both Epps and Thompson will form a strong backcourt for the Wildcats, but Coach Mitchell was quick that no one should sleep on the Cats’ bigs. He had high praise for several front court players.
"I think that Alexis Jennings has made great progress on her body and just her physical conditioning. She can run faster and longer, and she's stronger. Batouly Camara is a freshman that I think is just going to be a terrific player when she starts to figure things out. She has a great heart, great attitude, wants to be good. Ivana Jakubcova can swing from the post to the wing, really versatile player."
UK’s front line will get a tremendous boost from Nigerian born JUCO transfer Evelyn Akhator.
"Evelyn is a player that has tremendous athletic talent, can run, can jump, is aggressive. She has room for growth as a basketball player, but she is very talented, and she works extremely hard. Most of the time when you tell her to do something, you only have to correct her once. She then takes ownership of that information and makes the corrections", said Mitchell about Akhator.
UK’s crop of freshmen are far from a finished product but so far are showing a willingness to learn to play defense, said Mitchell. Surprisingly, Mitchell does think that offense, not defense, will be the measuring stick on whether the team can join the ranks of the elite.
He noted that even when his team have been ranked in the top 10, their field-goal percentage has not been on par with other programs. So, it is essential that the Wildcats learn good shot selection if they want to break through the glass ceiling this season.