For much of this year, upheaval has been the narrative surrounding the Kentucky women’s basketball program, which lost seven players, both of its signees from the class of 2016 and all three assistant coaches in a matter of months.
Heading into the summer, Coach Matthew Mitchell promised to right the ship.
He appears to be off to a good start.
In addition to hiring a brand new — and experienced — coaching staff during the offseason, Mitchell is, somewhat improbably, on his way to signing a Top 25 national recruiting class for 2017.
The Wildcats have five commitments for next year heading into the early signing period, which starts Wednesday, and — though UK isn’t expecting any more fall commitments — Mitchell could still add to that group between now and the spring.
The Cats’ commitment list isn’t likely to include any McDonald’s All-Americans, which have become a staple of UK recruiting classes in recent years, but the absence of such players isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“He’s getting exactly who he wants,” said All-Star Girls Report analyst Bret McCormick. “They have that motor and they play hard. And that’s all he cares about. He wants them to play hard. … I think it’s a great group.”
In an interview with the Herald-Leader’s Mark Story last month, Mitchell acknowledged that a recruit’s numerical ranking wouldn’t be the most important factor when evaluating which girls would be the best fit for UK’s program moving forward.
“I would tell you, I’m not sure the measure for us needs to be McDonald’s All-Americans,” he said at the time. “As we go through the evolution of our program, I think we are learning some things. I’m not necessarily looking at maybe what the public is looking at. So if a kid has a number by her name, and you are saying that is the right player for Kentucky, that’s not our formula.”
That said, the players Mitchell has lined up for 2017 are very good.
All four of the high school prospects on the Cats commitment list — Keke McKinney, Kameron Roach, Dorie Harrison and Tatyana Wyatt — are ranked in the Top 100 nationally by All-Star Girls Report. UK also has a commitment from junior-college prospect Amanda Paschal.
He’s getting exactly who he wants. They have that motor and they play hard. And that’s all he cares about. He wants them to play hard. … I think it’s a great group.
Bret McCormick, All-Star Girls Report analyst
McKinney — a 6-foot-1 forward from Knoxville, Tenn. — chose the Cats over a scholarship offer from the hometown Volunteers.
McCormick, who ranks McKinney as the No. 59 player in the class, lauded her athleticism and versatility. “She can be an inside-outside player. She can guard a guard. She can guard a post.”
Roach — a 5-6 point guard from South Carolina — is ranked as a three-star prospect by ESPN, but McCormick bristled at that designation.
“I saw somebody had her as a three-star player. She’s not a three-star player,” he said. “She’s better than that. She’s a great passer. She’s strong, athletic and she can get to the rim. She’s a good defender. She’s a team player. She wants to win, and she’ll do what it takes for her team to win.
“She’ll be one of Mitchell’s favorite players, trust me. You don’t have to worry about her playing hard every day.”
Roach, who is No. 70 overall in the ASGR rankings, suffered a torn ACL in July but is expected to be fully recovered for her freshman season at Kentucky.
All-Star Girls Report ranks UK’s class at No. 6 in the SEC, behind Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Florida.
Harrison — a 6-3 prospect and No. 77 overall in the class — is often listed as a center, but McCormick said she’ll bring versatility to Lexington.
“She’s athletic, long,” he said. “She can really run. Good rebounder. Good shot blocker. She can get better inside, but she’ll be able to fit Mitchell’s system if he wants to get out and press again. She can run the floor, and she’ll be good.”
Wyatt is ranked No. 92 overall, but McCormick criticized his own ranking, acknowledging that “she’s probably better than that.” Wyatt — a Georgia native — played on an AAU team loaded with high-major Division I prospects, and she sometimes got lost in the mix as a result.
“She kind of got overshadowed, but she’s an unbelievable athlete,” McCormick said. “She can play inside-outside and guard multiple positions. She’s very versatile. (Mitchell) is getting a lot of players that are 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, and they’re matchup nightmares.”
McCormick said Paschal also fits in with Mitchell’s theme for this class, and his vision for the program’s future: “Mitchell wants these high-character kids who want to play and do what the team wants from them. And he’s getting them.”
Going into the week, ASGR ranked UK’s class at No. 6 in the Southeastern Conference, and McCormick said it could very well be a Top 25-caliber group by the end of the cycle.
Six months ago, that would’ve been hard to believe.
“He’s going to be back in business,” McCormick said. “I think this is a great class. I don’t think he could have asked for much better.”