BY STEVE KAUFMAN
Matthew Mitchell will start from scratch this year, without star power but with a lot of depth
John Calipari loses – and replaces – key players every year on his Kentucky men’s basketball team. But for Matthew Mitchell, coach of the UK women’s team, losing key players can be extremely disruptive.
And that is the case for this year’s squad. Gone by graduation from last year’s nationally ranked team that won 22 games and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament are Makayla Epps, the dynamic floor leader and shotmaker, and Evelyn Akhator, the imposing inside presence.
Epps scored 17.7 points a game and shot 35.5 percent from three-point range. Akhator added 16 points and nearly 11 rebounds a game. She was the third pick overall in the WNBA draft, by the Dallas Wings. The fiery Epps was drafted in the third round by the Chicago Sky.
So, in other words, much to replace.
The burden falls on two double-figure scorers from last year, juniors Taylor Murray and Maci Morris. Both are sweet-shooting backcourt players, and Murray, in particular, is as fast a player as anyone in the country. She also was a McDonald’s All-American (a reference all of Big Blue Nation is familiar with) while in high school in Odenton, Md.
Of all returning players from last year’s team, Murray carries over the most points per game (12.2), rebounds (4.9 a game), assists (3.9 a game) and steals (2.0 a game). Morris averaged 11.8 a game and led the team with 53 made threes.
Whether either one has the dynamic, aggressive floor leadership abilities that Epps brought to the court will have to remain to be seen. But the early season has produced a 3-0 record and a national ranking. And the two veterans combined for 34 points in the third win of the season, 71-54 over the University of Montana. Murray added 12 rebounds in that game.
Another returner, senior Jessica Hardin (a transfer from Bellarmine), was leading the team in three-point average a year ago before suffering a concussion that ended her junior season. Mitchell regards her value as more than just shooting. She’s an energetic hustler, as well.
As is Jaida Roper, a 5-6 sophomore whose slim statistics last year probably weren’t an indication of how much Mitchell hopes she’ll bring to the court this year.
And then there’s replacing Akhator. In early season play, 6-3 freshman Dorie Harrison has been asserting herself. She had nine rebounds in 20 minutes in the season opener, a 101-point effort over Sacramento State; and another eight rebounds against Montana.
But the team suffered a severe loss, even before the season began, with a knee injury to Ogechi Anyagaligbo, a 6-1 junior who transferred to UK from SUNY Stony Brook, where she was the America East Conference freshman of the year, averaging 10 points and nine rebounds.
Other bright spots in the season-opening win over Sacramento State were Makenzie Cann, a 6-1 senior guard who scored 17 points, making six of nine shots, four of six from three; and Tatyana Wyatt, a 6-2 freshman forward, who scored 13 points in 15 minutes off the bench.
Cann had another double-figure game against Gardner-Webb, scoring 10 points (with four-of-seven shooting) and with seven rebounds in the team’s 72-34 route. Last year, Cann played inside a lot, because of her height. The feeling is, the deeper talent on this year’s squad will enable her to roam the floor, where her height will make her a tough matchup for most teams.
And Roper, making the most of her off-the-bench opportunities, came in against Sacramento State and threw up six shots in 21 minutes, scoring nine points. She scored another 10 against Gardner- Webb, and 14 against Montana.
But the season’s early non-conference games in November are just that. Early games in November. Coach Mitchell will remind you it’s a long season, especially in the SEC, arguably the strongest women’s basketball league in the country. South Carolina is the reigning national champion, last year ending the Connecticut Huskies’ four-year reign. The Gamecocks beat another SEC school, Mississippi State (who knocked off the Huskies in the semifinals), in the national championship game.
Last year, Texas A&M, LSU, Missouri, Auburn and Tennessee also made the tournament (as well, of course, as Kentucky and the two championship finalists). And Tennessee, when coached by the late, legendary Pat Summitt, was probably the country’s most elite program, with eight national championships and five other losses in the championship game. Summitt’s gone, but Tennessee still brings the weird-colored magic.
But Kentucky is not looking in from the outside. Mitchell can do much more than dance like Elvis. His Kentucky teams have won 71 percent of their games. He has led them to eight straight NCAA tournament appearances, developing the games of such UK superstars as Victoria Dunlap and A’dia Mathies. His teams have reached three Elite Eights. He’d probably laugh at the notion, though, that this might be his toughest rebuilding year. He’d probably say that every year is tough and challenging.
Calipari’s teams are always loaded with promising freshmen. Mitchell is not without the same on his team this year. Keke McKinney, a 6-1 frosh from Knoxville, Tenn., is learning a new role. She played the 1 or 2 in high school, but Mitchell wants her out on the court, probably in the 3 position. Even as a freshman, though, on a team dominated by upperclassmen, she has shown the vocal, aggressive personality that made Epps such a compelling presence during her UK tour.
Ten players played double-figure minutes against Sacramento State, eight more against Gardner-Webb, and seven against Montana. That’s a preview of the depth Mitchell expects to get from his team this year. Of course, minutes on the floor tend to condense as players’ strengths and weaknesses emerge and the level of competition gets tougher. Kentucky basketball fans have become used to seeing every year how Calipari goes from 10 or 11 players early to a nucleus of seven or eight in the cauldron of the real season. But Mitchell has indicated just the opposite tendency, especially with this team.
Without a breakthrough, dominant player – like Dunlap, Mathies or Epps – he’s counting on the strength of this team being its depth. The ability to bring in fresh legs without losing competitiveness. It’s a factor that always plays well against less-deep teams, who begin gasping for breath and tugging on their shorts, especially in up-tempo games. It’s what he expects to see this year.
But is that how it will play out? Coaches who preach depth and balance are always hoping that somebody steps up and claims superstar status, providing the bulk of minutes, points and leadership to take their teams deep into the NCAA tournament.
Does Mitchell have that superstar? Might it be Murray, or Morris, or maybe Wyatt, or Cann, or Harrison? The beginning of every season is always rife with unknown possibilities. The fun of the season is seeing how all that plays out.
Even more fun than one of Mitchell’s stank legs or hammer-time dances, baggy Hammer pants and all.