If team photo day is any indication, at least two new faces will be on the Kentucky bench this season, bringing the Cats up to nine available players for Matthew Mitchell.
Two former high school standouts from Kentucky, Jessica Hardin of Wayne County and Rachel Potter of Pikeville, both took part in a recent casual photo day with the team.
Both Hardin and Potter are working out with the team this summer, UK spokesman Evan Crane confirmed, but they won’t be added to the official roster as walk-ons until school begins on Aug. 24.
When asked about his plans to fill out the UK roster decimated by transfers last season, Matthew Mitchell told the Herald-Leader he anticipated having nine to 11 players available, most likely coming from walk-ons or transfers.
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UK returns four of its top six scorers from last season, including First Team All-Southeastern Conference senior Makayla Epps as well as forward Evelyn Akator and guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray.
Reserve forward Alyssa Rice also will be back. Cincinnati transfer Makenzie Cann is eligible to play this season after sitting out last season, and the Cats added freshman guard Jaida Roper in May.
“Our core players are good,” Mitchell said. “Great attitudes, great work ethic, incredibly loyal that they’ve hung in with all this.”
Mitchell said in June that “seven players is definitely enough.
“If we didn’t add another player to the roster, we would go into the season confident that we’ll have a great season,” Mitchell said. “From that standpoint, we’re real confident. We can’t be sloppy and we can’t foul. We’ve got to do a great job and we’ve got to work hard, but that’s all part of it.”
As long as it’s the right seven players — which he believes UK has — a team can be successful. The head coach noted that there were many games last season that Kentucky played with a core seven players and an eighth might have played a handful of minutes.
Those players who could fill those extra minutes (or maybe more) now look to include Hardin and Potter.
Hardin, a 5-foot-9 guard, played one season at Bellarmine where she averaged 20.6 minutes a game, starting in 16 contests. She was third on the team in scoring at 9.6 points with 2.8 rebounds.
Hardin led the Knights in three-pointers made (52) and percentage (36.9), making five from long range in three different games.
While at Wayne County, Hardin averaged 19.6 points and six rebounds a game and was a member of the Kentucky All-Stars roster in 2013. The 12th Region Player of the Year finished third on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,795) and fifth in rebounding (797). Her 635 points in one season also was a school record.
Hardin played on the same Kentucky Premier AAU team with Epps.
Pikeville’s Potter, a 5-11 guard who graduated in 2014, was among the state’s top 15 scorers in 2014, averaging 20.7 points a game. She scored more than 2,000 career points.
It’s been a tumultuous offseason for Kentucky, which ended last season 25-8 in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. The carnage has included the transfers of five players, the graduate transfer of another and the dismissal of another.
Every member of the Cats’ initial 2016 recruiting class was granted a release from her national letter of intent and chose to play for other schools. Several other high-profile commitments have gone elsewhere, like the recent announcement that Lindsey Duvall is headed to Louisville.
Kentucky also had two assistant coaches leave and another whose contract wasn’t renewed last season.
Since the turmoil started, Kentucky has landed just two signees. Roper initially had signed to play at Louisiana Tech before that program became embroiled in its own controversies. In June, UK added a transfer. Ogechi Anyagaligbo, a 6-foot forward from Stony Brook who was America East Conference Rookie of the Year as a freshman in 2015-16, will have three seasons of eligibility at UK beginning in 2017-18.
Kentucky has reportedly had visits from several Class of 2018 prospects including point guard Jazmine Massengill, the 19th-best player in that class according to ESPN, as well as wing Elizabeth Balogun (rated the No. 5 player at her position by ESPN), who tweeted that she received an offer from Kentucky on Aug. 1.
She reportedly visited at the same time as Rhyne Howard, a point guard out of Cleveland, Tenn.
Other unofficial visitors have included Blair Green, a 6-foot wing player out of Harlan County, who tweeted that she had an “amazing visit” at UK along with a picture of herself with Mitchell with the caption “We rock Kentucky blue.”
There also was a recent one from McKenzie Forbes of Folsom, Calif. The 6-foot wing player ranked as the 20th-best player in the 2018 class by ESPN posted selfies with and offered shoutouts to assistant coaches Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts on Twitter.
In the 2017 class, Deja Church, a 5-7 guard from outside Detroit, made an unofficial visit in August and picked up an offer from Kentucky, according to multiple reports.
As for the Kentucky of this season with its core seven players — and now at least two walk-ons — Mitchell said he’s happy they’ve stuck around.
“I’m real grateful to this group,” he said in June. “They’re real positive. The parents have been super positive. Inside the building is an amazing place to be right now.”