A numbers cruncher would have a hard time figuring out how Kentucky is still in the hunt for a first-round bye in the women’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.
With four games left in the regular season, the Cats are in the middle of the pack in nearly every statistical category, including ones that are usually telling in league play: field-goal percentage (sixth) and rebounding (10th).
“As a team, we’re really flawed,” said Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team’s only top statistical categories this season are fewest turnovers and fewest fouls committed.
Mitchell had just gone through a film session to scout Arkansas, a team UK has beaten six straight times. Despite the Razorbacks’ 13-12 record (just 2-10 in league play), Mitchell said they will present some problems for Kentucky on Thursday night.
“We’ve got to play really hard if we’re going to win there,” he said.
Aside from one or two games this season and despite of all of its inherent flaws as its coach calls them, UK has played well enough to be in the hunt for a bye in the SEC Tournament and potentially a chance to be a top-16 team in the NCAA Tournament with a chance to host the first two rounds.
“This a very interesting team,” he said of the Cats, who have the third-toughest schedule in the nation and a No. 16 RPI. “We could be 4-8. We’re 8-4, and I think it all goes back to the character these people have. They have great character.”
They practice real hard, they’ve made a commitment to everybody just trying to do the best they can. It’s a classic case of the sum’s better than the parts. We’ve tried to coach real hard, give time. We’ve tried to learn from all of our mistakes.
It’s the character that has helped Kentucky go 17-8 this season and 8-4 in league play despite having just seven scholarship players available since January thanks to last season’s attrition.
But don’t ask Mitchell to explain it.
“They practice real hard, they’ve made a commitment to everybody just trying to do the best they can,” he said. “It’s a classic case of the sum’s better than the parts. We’ve tried to coach real hard, give time. We’ve tried to learn from all of our mistakes.”
Last season’s struggles changed more than just the coach.
Junior Alyssa Rice sees it in her teammates every practice. They don’t take each other for granted.
“We all want to work hard for each other and for the coaches and as a team,” she said when asked how UK has won two in a row and seven of its last nine games.
“Where we lack in some talent or some depth or something like that, it’s made up with heart. You can’t really measure that. It’s something you either have or you don’t. And I think this team has a lot of heart. And just is willing to fight for every game.”
Number of regular-season games remaining for Kentucky:
Thursday: At Arkansas, 8 p.m.
Sunday: Florida, 1 p.m.
Feb. 23: Mississippi State, 7 p.m.
Feb. 26: At South Carolina, TBA
The Cats know they’re in for a fight to end the season in one of those top four spots.
There is the game at Arkansas (No. 136 in RPI) and then at home Sunday against Florida (No. 61 in RPI) before UK ends the season against the top two teams in the league: No. 3 Mississippi State and then at No. 6 South Carolina.
Mitchell hasn’t brought up this four-game stretch and the import of these next two games. This team doesn’t work that way, he said.
“I don’t go in there and say, ‘Gosh, we’ve got to win Thursday night,’” he said. “No. we’re really trying to improve. I’m so proud of what we’ve done to this point to get in position for a top-four seed. …
“I’m not going to go tell the team we’ve got to win on Thursday because that’s just not a good approach with this team. They all want to win. They’re going to do everything they can to win.”
It’s the effort that’s impressed him most about this group.
It’s a team that’s fine being middle-of-the-road statistically, both as a team and as individuals.
“They don’t particularly care about much except winning and winning games,” he said. “The attitude problems we have this year are somebody getting down because they feel like they’ve let the team down. … They’re just a good team filled with good teammates.”
UK in the SEC stats
Free throw percentage
Field goal percentage
Field goal percentage defense
Three-point field goal percentage
Three-point field goal percentage defense
Blocks per game
Assists per game
Steals per game
Kentucky at Arkansas
When: 8 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 17-8 (8-4 SEC), Arkansas 13-12 (2-10)
Series: Kentucky leads 20-13
Last meeting: Kentucky won 77-63 on Feb. 21, 2016, in Lexington.