On a weekend where Keeneland is in full swing, Mark Stoops, and the football team look to rise above .500., and Coach Cal’s latest crop of freshmen showed up and showed off, the fact that the UK Hoops team had their annual media day took a back seat in the news cycle.
However, there were plenty of takeaways as Matthew Mitchell’s team opens the new year after a tumultuous offseason where seven players left the program and three new assistant coaches joined the staff.
The Past is in the Past
Coach Mitchell was emphatic that the attrition during the offseason will not be the biggest challenge he faces going into the season. Finding the right balance with so many new faces will.
"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."
To help the team focus on the present, Coach Mitchell introduced #One as the theme for this season. Something he elaborated on later in the press conference.
"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", he said.
So what exactly will that entail?
"We can't have lapses in responsibility, and we can't have lapses in attitude, and we can't have lapses in effort," Mitchell explained.
The Team Isn’t Afraid to Work
The hallmark of the UK Hoops program since Matthew Mitchell are team’s that thrive on taking a blue collar identity, i.e. working hard and playing defense. This version of the Wildcats have that attitude embedded into their DNA according to their coach.
The dedication to improvement starts with the team’s veterans.
"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."
Still, Mitchell had high praise for the entire squad’s work ethic.
"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."
Expect A Short Rotation to Start the Season
With only six returning players from last season’s Sweet 16 team, Kentucky will have a thin rotation to start the year, but given the experience among the six Coach Mitchell thinks they can make it work.
"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."
Kentucky fans should not count out the unproven section of the bench, though.
A Plethora of Walk-Ons
Kentucky welcomed an unusually large group of walk-ons during the off season which Coach Mitchell admitted is unlike anything he’s experienced during his tenure at the helm of the program. He believes, though, that this group will be more than bodies on the bench.
"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."
How many of the walk-ons will play is unknown as the season begins.
"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", Coach Mitchell said.
Maci Morris is Ready to Breakout
The team’s returning sharpshooter has not gotten the hype that seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator have, but Coach Mitchell was adamant during the press conference that the Bell County native is right up there with her more lauded teammates.
"Maci has practiced at as high a level as anybody and really looks good, and really excited to see her play this season," he said.
During the summer, Morris worked on her fitness by adding more muscle to her frame and increasing her speed and agility.
While Morris is "shooting the ball at an elite level," Coach Mitchell said she has become a more complete player.
"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."
Coach Mitchell on Some of the Newcomers
Before the day was done, Coach Mitchell took the time to offer some thoughts about what a handful of his newer players bring to the team.
On transfer Mackenzie Cann: "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."
On freshman Jaida Roper: "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."
On walk-on Jessica Hardin: 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.