Tag Archives: UK

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KENTUCKY HOOPS SAYS GOOD-BYE TO EPPS AND AKHATOR, HELLO TO A YOUNGER BUNCH 

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.

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Four Fans Weigh In On March Madness

By Jim Biery

With multiple legendary college basketball programs in close proximity of each other, it should come as no surprise that the Louisville area has been number one on ESPN’s list of markets for college basketball ratings 14 years in a row. That is almost double the rating of the second-place city, Raleigh-Durham.

Selection Sunday is March 12; first round games start the 16. There will be buzzer beaters, unlikely heroes and heartbreaking upsets. There will also be the so-called experts from Dan Dakich to Jay Bilas to Dick Vitale spewing their knowledge of every team and who they think will be going to Phoenix, the site of this years Final Four.

The local programs in these parts are followed religiously by each team’s loyal-until-death-don’t-even-think-about-calling-or-texting-me-during-the-game type of fans. If this sounds farfetched or overblown to you, I invite you to any local sports bar or family living room to watch and listen to the knowledge and passion each fan has for his or her favorite university.

With all of this knowledge and local support surrounding us, I feel like it would be a refreshing point of view to get the thoughts and expectations of each team from those who follow their beloved universities year in and year out, not just at tournament time.

I asked the same four questions of the following fans about their respective favorite team’s chances in March:

Daniel Franklin, a bleed blue Kentucky fan and avid recreational league player; Greg Deuser, a 1982 Louisville graduate who played on UofL’s 1980 chapionship men’s basketball team; Dan Himmelhaver, 1973 Purdue graduate, who has been a member of the John Purdue Club for 34 years; and 1999 Indiana University graduate Ryan Gobert, a life-long Hoosier fan.

What one player could your team ill afford to lose and why?

Daniel Franklin: Bam Adebayo. He is our only down-low threat. Without him we have no rim protector or legitimate scorer.

Greg Deuser: Donavan Mitchell. The team struggles to score at times. It is hard to compete if Mitchell is having a poor game.

Dan Himmelhaver: Caleb Swanigan. All around player for a big man, has ability to always be where the ball is coming of the boards.

Ryan Gobert: Blackmon and OG Anuoby. Blackmon creates his own shots; Anuoby can be a shut-down defender.

If everyone is healthy, how far could your team go in the tournament?  

Franklin: Cut down the nets. The tools are there, just hasn’t clicked yet.

Deuser: Final Four. Defense will keep them in most games. Consistent scoring and execution in tight games could be the key.

Himmelhaver: Looking to make it to Elite 8.

Gobert: In early December, I would have said Final Four; now, we will need some luck to make the tourney.

What type of team gives your team the most trouble? 

Franklin: Teams that slow tempo and play zone, don’t move the ball quick enough to attack zone.

Deuser: They struggle with teams that mirror them. Teams that defend, like the Cards, and have enough patience to wait for good shots.

Himmelhaver: Quick teams and teams long underneath.

Gobert: Teams that play zone and make in-game adjustments.

Grade your coach on job done up to this point of year.

Franklin: C-. Calipari can get the best talent but struggles getting them to buy into system.

Deuser: B+. Don’t always look like a top team because of style of play. Pitino coaxes a lot of wins out of his teams. He puts their long and athletic players in best position to win games.

Himmelhaver: B. Struggles getting right lineup in against opponents after they substitute players. Poor execution under one minute to go in games.

Gobert: Last year was an A. This year is a D. Talent has regressed and team looks lost at times and not to care at others.

So, there you have it. Honest and direct opinions from people that love and follow their teams year in and year out. As Selection Sunday draws near, you have many decisions to make while you spend countless hours (on company time) filling out your brackets. You can listen to and watch all the breakdowns from an endless supply of ex players and coaches that think they know the game better than others. You can give some serious consideration to your local dedicated fan, or the surprisingly effective strategy of picking the winner by choosing a team based on the color of their uniforms.

No matter how you pick ‘em, I wish you good luck in your office pool. For me, I will stay close to my trusted pundits and listen carefully when they speak about their team’s chances in the Big Dance.

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This Old Soul Wants His Rivalry Back

By Zach McCrite

I used to laugh at old people.

I mean, seriously, how many times can we be told about you old people walking uphill to school, both ways? Barefoot in the snow, of course.

But then, a funny thing happened in 2012. I became old. As a native Hoosier doing a sports radio talk show in St. Louis for a living at the time, I was livid from afar as a man that possesses an Indiana University degree.

The Indiana-Kentucky basketball rivalry had come to an end for the foreseeable future. And we are now in that foreseeable future. And I’m still mad. Like old, crotchety, bingo-playing mad.

Bring back my rivalry!

As a new writer to this new magazine fresh off watching Louisville play both Indiana and Kentucky in awesome, college basketball-rich states and cities, I thought the best place to start to let you know about me is to see me at my sports-loving core. And this is it. This is me, complaining about how the “good ol’ days” used to be better, breathtaking, exciting. In future issues, I promise, I’ll become less senile.

But until then…

This series needs to resume – and now – if only to make me as young as my 1980 birth year makes me.

The real reason is this: as an Indiana fan, I am proud to be from a state that worships college basketball. I like all sports, don’t get me wrong. In fact, on Sundays in the fall, you’ll find me on my couch with a beer glued to one hand and a remote glued to the other as I watch NFL nonstop (sorry, wife and kid and future kid coming in July).

But I love college basketball, especially in the 90s. And there was nothing, from a sports standpoint, that made me prouder to be from Indiana than to know that we were a Top Ten college basketball program.

Part of that narrative included the Hoosiers playing the Wildcats. Two of the most storied programs in college basketball history – separated by a couple hundred wins and the Ohio River– played every year despite never sharing a conference.

Indiana vs. Kentucky: The best regular season college hoops rivalry. Born 1924. Died 2011.

Everyone remembers the Watford shot in 2011, the final game (and shot) of the regular season series. A moment that made IU fans feel like IU was starting to creep up on the ghosts of its once-successful past. Both teams have split NCAA Tournament contests since, including the Hoosiers’ upset victory over the Cats in the NCAA Tournament this past March, which rekindled this once-eternal flame like a Bangles reunion!

But even though I bleed Cream and Crimson, I’m mad at all sides. I’m mad at the “red” state and the “blue” state.

I’m mad at John Calipari. The man is as apathetic about this rivalry as he is a magnificent college basketball coach.

The story goes, according to the Bloomington Herald-Times, that Calipari would refuse anything more than a two-year series. The common thinking there was, with the way the Kentucky coach recruits, he doesn’t really know how good his team will be in two years with two more crops of players already having come and gone through his seemingly-streaming door of NBA talent. What if he had a down recruiting year? This was the worry, by many accounts.

Furthermore, Calipari reportedly wouldn’t budge on games being only at neutral sites, although he and the University of Kentucky administration had agreed to both games in the two-year series being played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

I’m also mad at Tom Crean. He, along with Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, wanted games to be played on the campuses of the two schools, alternating each year and, even more frustrating, blamed it on the students’ lack of being able to travel (ahem, 45 minutes) and pay to go to Indianapolis to attend. Weak.

Eventually, according to the same Herald-Times article, the Indiana University brass tried to compromise with a four-year deal: one game in Bloomington, one game in Lexington and two games at Lucas Oil Stadium.

So here we are, standing over the grave of this unforgettable rivalry and reminiscing.

And honestly, the 16-year-old in me wants it the Calipari way. I want the game at a neutral site every year like it was from 1989 to 2005. Why can’t we have this rivalry the way it used to be?

My childhood consists of my dad and my friends watching Jamal Mashburn at the Hoosier Dome, drooling over fellow-Hoosier Damon Bailey at Freedom Hall, staring during timeouts at the two aisles across from each other that served as the de facto borders between red and blue.

And who can forget then-Indiana coach Mike Davis going absolutely bonkers on a ref in the middle of the court at the end of the 2002 game in Louisville?

You see, I’m a firm believer that 90 percent of the most memorable college basketball games happen at neutral sites. We all have games we remember from the Maui Invitational, or a Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden or elsewhere. Not to mention all the NCAA Tournament and Final Four games.

Sure, there are plenty of memorable games on campuses everywhere around the country. But, they’re just a little tougher to remember, unless, of course you hit a buzzer beater (thanks Watford and Kirk Haston).

The same notion applies outside of sports as well. I’m sure your wife will enjoy it if you took her to see “Hamilton” at the Kentucky Center. But, she’ll have a story forever if you took her to see it in NYC.

Things of this nature – off-Broadway plays, college basketball games and many things in between – are less memorable when they’re less of an “event” because they’re “just down the (proverbial) street.” When you get basketball games off your favorite team’s home floor and onto a neutral site, it’s almost always less of a game and more of an event. It’s something you tell your kids about when you’re older. And their kids, too.

I love Bloomington. I love Assembly Hall. But, the same holds true for college basketball’s most-storied rivalry. It deserves not only to be revived, but to be different. It should be played off-campus. It should be an event.

This is the guy I have become at my sports-loving core. I have become the guy who not only wants my rivalry back, but wants it at neutral sites, too.

I have become old.

Want to find Zach on Twitter? Just follow @BigEZ.