Along the main hallway of the women’s basketball office are happy, smiling portraits of Kentucky’s players.
Slowly as players left the program for one reason or another last season, the wall became more and more sparse until just six scholarship players remained.
Around the corner, all three assistant coaches’ offices were either cleaned out or in the process of being cleaned out around this time a year ago.
But this April, things are less chaotic.
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Instead of looking sleepless and stressed like he did a year ago, Coach Matthew Mitchell seems tanned and refreshed as he settles in at the conference room table to discuss next season.
“As I sit here right now, I feel real good about the future,” he said.
The head coach, going into his 11th season at Kentucky, doesn’t formally meet with each of his players until next week, but he is confident that everyone expected to come back will be back.
In all, seven scholarship players are set to return, including forward Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, and Jessica Hardin, who was granted a scholarship after walking on last summer.
Including the four true freshmen and one junior-college player set to arrive this summer, UK will have 12 scholarship players available and potentially three walk-ons.
“I would reject that mindset that we’ll just try and recover next year and see what the future holds,” Mitchell said of rebuilding talk. “I’m not looking at it that way at all.”
He thinks of next year’s team a lot like UK’s 2010-11 team for which six freshmen played a lot of minutes. They all were good athletes who hustled and won 25 games together. A season later, that core helped the Cats win a 2012 SEC regular-season title.
“I’m not sitting here today thinking the very best we can do is sneak into the WNIT and win a game,” said Mitchell, whose team advanced to its eighth straight NCAA Tournament and finished with a 22-11 record this season. “That’s not my mindset right now.
“I think it’s an exciting team with awesome potential and we’re going to start practice with the idea of winning a national championship.”
Keeping pieces in place
So much of Mitchell’s confidence about the future comes from the people around him.
For the first time in five years, it appears that Kentucky’s core coaching staff will remain the same. Assistant coaches Niya Butts and Kyra Elzy are starting their second year of two-year contracts.
Lin Dunn, a Hall of Fame coach who came out of retirement to help Mitchell after the great exodus of 2016, only signed a one-year deal, but he believes she will sign another contract soon and be back.
“It’s the first year in so long where there wasn’t some type of agenda where someone was trying to either get a head coaching job or a member of the staff not getting along, whatever the issue may be,” he said. “This one was a unified front where I felt like every day the coaches were concerned about each other and the kids and trying to help them get better.”
This group also was hard working and helped UK put together what the coach considers a solid 2017 recruiting class that at least one recruiting service ranks No. 16 nationally.
It will remain an uphill climb in the SEC, though, with five other league schools ahead of UK in the recruiting ratings, according to Bret McCormick of the All-Star Girls Report.
The conference was dominant this past year with eight teams (including UK) ranked among the top 20 nationally in recruiting, McCormick noted.
The Cats’ top incoming player is KeKe McKinney, a 6-foot-1 wing player from Fulton High School in Tennessee. She was rated No. 88 nationally by ESPN.
The incoming class includes three three-star players (according to ESPN) in forwards Dorie Harrison and Tatyana Wyatt and point guard Kameron Roach. UK also is adding Amanda Paschal, a guard out of Gulf Coast State.
“There’s a lot of hard work to be done between now and then but I really believe in this group we’re bringing in,” Mitchell said. “I’ll be real surprised if they don’t work real hard.”
They’re already asking a lot of questions and are focused on ways to learn plays and stay in shape.
“They’re not high-ego kids focused on what their ranking is and that sort of stuff,” he said. “As I sit here, I like the pieces of what we can try to put together.”
While there’s much coming in and much returning, it’s still hard to ignore what Mitchell will have to replace in Epps and Akhator.
The dynamic duo, likely to be selected in the WNBA Draft in less than a week, accounted for 47.4 percent of UK’s scoring and 42 percent of its rebounds last season, not to mention more than a third of the Cats’ assists, steals and blocks.
There also were the intangibles in work ethic and leadership.
All of that will be difficult to replace, Mitchell acknowledged. When UK has needed a basket or a big play at a key time in the last two seasons, Akhator and Epps were always there.
Who takes on those roles next season? It’s probably Taylor Murray and Maci Morris, two returning starters who scored in bulk several times this season. Other returners include forward Alyssa Rice, as well as key reserves like Makenzie Cann and Jaida Roper.
Mitchell believes Anyagaligbo, a transfer from Stony Brook, will be a solid player, too.
“She is so nasty, mean, tough in a really positive way that shows you her competitive fire burns really bright,” he said of the forward. “High achiever; wants to do well.”
Mitchell is excited to see what Kentucky can become.
“We’re going to be a little bit more athletic and a little bit more versatile and deeper to the point where we can hopefully put a little more pressure on people,” the coach predicted.
“While we’ll have some inexperience out there, I think inexperience really is helped by just flying around and being able to go where you don’t have to think quite as much,” he said. “So I think we’ll be a little bit more dynamic overall.”
2017-18 UK roster
Miami Country Day/Stony Brook
Annapolis Area Christian
Chipley/Gulf Coast St.