Over the next three seasons, the University of Kentucky women's basketball program could travel the road to the Final Four — and never leave Lexington.
Stepping up big for UK Hoops, the Kentucky athletics administration has secured the rights to serve as host to an NCAA Tournament regional (the rounds of 16 and eight) in Rupp Arena for the next three seasons.
So if Matthew Mitchell and his team can play well enough to secure a No. 4 seed or better — which UK has done six years in a row — the Wildcats would also have the opportunity to play the first two rounds of the Big Dance in Memorial Coliseum.
Yep, UK's path to the national semifinals could be Memorial, Memorial, Rupp, Rupp for three years in a row. If you think Mitchell feels urgency to take cash in this potential big advantage, you are 100-percent correct.
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"I think it would be less than genuine to say that doesn't create inside of me, definitely, a window of opportunity like 'Man, you've definitely got to leave no stone unturned,'" Mitchell said. "I would be lying if (I said) it did not sharpen my focus."
Since the 2009-10 season, Mitchell and UK Hoops have climbed high up the women's college basketball mountain. Kentucky has been a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament three different times, a No. 3 once and a No. 4 twice. UK has advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight three times and the round of 16 another time.
What Mitchell and the Cats have not yet been able to do is scale the summit of their sport — the Final Four.
Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart says UK's decision to bid to play host to region tourneys in Rupp in 2016, '17 and '18 is about trying to help UK Hoops get over that hump — and other things, too.
"One, these ventures are always in conjunction with the city to try and bring events to your city," Barnhart said. "It's four or five days of people coming to town and hotels and restaurants and things like that which are really, really good for our community.
"(But) competitively, it's always wonderful. If you can find a way to put yourself in a position to get to a sweet 16 and then a Final Four and you can do it through a pathway of a place where you are comfortable, absolutely, it's helpful."
While making UK a nationally relevant women's hoops program, Mitchell has simultaneously been generous to charitable causes in the community and a willing goodwill representative of the University of Kentucky.
Barnhart says the UK serving as NCAA Tournament region host three years in a row is partly in recognition of what Mitchell and his wife, Jenna, have meant to the school.
"Matthew, I tell people all the time, he's much more than a women's basketball coach," Barnhart said. "He's an incredible ambassador to Kentucky. And he thinks so much of this place, the state, the city, the university. ... So if we can help him and his program take a step, we absolutely want to do that."
For the first two seasons of Kentucky's potential three-year "Never Leave Lexington" road to the Final Four, Mitchell figures to have teams led by star junior guard Makayla Epps, a pre-season All-SEC choice, and forward Evelyn Akhator, the reigning national junior college player of the year.
Everyone saw what Epps (16.9 ppg vs. ranked foes) could do last year when she broke out as UK's best player. Mitchell has been comparing Akhator, a 6-foot-3 Lagos, Nigeria, native, to a taller version of former Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap.
The prospects of UK taking advantage of the "Lexington window" seemed more promising before the surprise transfer of junior guard Linnae Harper. The departure of the highest-rated player (ranked No. 5 in class of 2013 by ESPN) ever to sign with Mitchell and UK removed a vital player only days before this season began.
As Kentucky discovered last season when No. 7 seed Dayton upset the No. 2 Wildcats 99-94 in the NCAA round of 32 in Memorial Coliseum, playing in Lexington is no guarantee of advancement. "My job is to make sure our players understand that the building is not going to win it for them," Mitchell says.
Still, a chance to break through to the Final Four without ever leaving the city limits is an extraordinary opportunity for Mitchell and his program.
"I would love to show my gratitude to the university," Mitchell says, "by making it pay off with a Final Four."