When Matthew Mitchell wants to emphasize to his roster of seven recruited, scholarship players what is possible even with a short bench, he need only to point to the team that eliminated Kentucky from the 2016 women’s NCAA basketball tournament.
Washington went to the Final Four while barely substituting at all. Over five NCAA tourney games, the average minutes played of Washington’s starters were: 40, 40, 36.6, 35.6 and 32.4.
Says Mitchell: “The number of people (on a team) is not nearly as important as what those people can do and what they are capable of.”
After a tumultuous offseason filled with player defections, Kentucky has only five returning players from last season’s 25-8 team that advanced to UK’s fifth Sweet 16 in seven years.
Yet the Cats have talent.
In star guard Makayla Epps and post player Evelyn Akhator, Kentucky features two of, oh, the 20 most talented players in women’s college basketball. Junior post player Alyssa Rice and sophomore point guard Taylor Murray were McDonald’s All-Americans. Sophomore wing Maci Morris was a member of last season’s Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team.
Former Anderson County star Makenzie Cann, who sat out last season after transferring from Cincinnati, and true freshman point guard Jaida Roper, a Memphis product who originally signed with Louisiana Tech, will join the five returnees.
In terms of playing style, “I don’t think you are going to see a dramatic departure from anything we’ve ever done,” Mitchell says. “We’re not sitting around here ‘Oh, gosh, do we have enough players?’”
Still, for Mitchell, the lack of depth will force some big decisions.
Question one: Does Kentucky play Akhator and Rice — UK’s only two post players — together or alternate them to ensure one is always on the court?
“We’ll just have to figure that out. I think there’s no doubt we’ll have periods in the game where we are in four guards,” Mitchell says. “We’re dynamic when we’re four guards.”
At UK’s media day, the 6-foot-1 Cann, known as a sharp-shooting wing, provided a window into how a four-guard attack might look. “This offseason, they’ve moved me more to the ‘four,’” Cann said of the power forward position.
Offensively, Cann at the four would allow UK and Mitchell to stretch the floor. But what about ...
Question two: While playing four guards, can UK defend teams with two big post players?
Mitchell isn’t sure. But the Kentucky coach points out that the days when UK Hoops had a swarming hive of smallish, quick guards is no more.
Noting that Morris and Cann are 6-1 and Epps is 5-10 and physically strong, Mitchell says “we’ve added some real length to those wings. ... When you think about the talent level and the strength level and the experience, we’ve got a lot of options defensively.”
Question three: How to keep Epps and Akhator on the floor?
It is self-evident that Kentucky will not enjoy a successful season if either Epps or Akhator suffers a serious injury. However, a physical malady is not the only thing that can take a player off the court.
A season ago, her first at UK after being the national junior college player of the year in 2014-15, Akhator fouled out of three games and often went to the bench in others after fouling while going for steals.
“I’ve really, really put a lot of thought into it,” Akhator says. “My fouls, last year, really hurt the team. This year, I’m going to reduce my fouls.”
More than a normal season, Kentucky has much at stake in finding the right answers. The best way Mitchell and UK Hoops can leave the tumult of the offseason behind is putting a good — and happy — team on the court in 2016-17.