Amidst the Great Player Exodus of 2015-16, I admire Mitchell for consistently granting transferring players unconditional releases and letting incoming signees out of signed letters of intent. That can not have been an easy thing to do in a school year that has seen seven players depart the UK program and five recruits rescind Kentucky commitments.
Doing the right thing when it’s not in your self-interest is a test many college coaches do not pass. That Mitchell has consistently cleared that bar during a time when his program acutely needed players to stay is to his credit.
Moving forward, the question I keep being asked is whether Mitchell — the most successful women’s basketball coach (219-89 in nine years) in UK history — can survive?
Though it is narrow, there is a road back for Mitchell.
If there are no more departures, the best thing Mitchell has going for him is next year’s Kentucky team.
With the commitment of Memphis high school point guard Jaida Roper on Thursday, UK is back up to seven players on its 2016-17 roster.
While people wonder how Kentucky will even field a team next year, those seven players include three McDonald’s All-Americans (Makayla Epps, Alyssa Rice and Taylor Murray); 2015’s National Junior College Player of the Year (Evelyn Akhator); and a 2015-16 SEC All-Freshman Team selection (Maci Morris).
In her final two games as a freshman at Cincinnati in 2014-15, Cann scored 23 points — and hit five three-pointers in the second half — in a win over Central Florida. The wing then scored eight of Cincinnati’s 34 points in a 93-34 loss to mighty Connecticut.
The 6-foot Anderson County product will give Kentucky another player similar to Morris, a dead-eye outside shooter to help spread the floor so Epps can drive and Akhator can operate inside.
As for Roper, UK and Mitchell have made good use of quick, smallish guards (think Amber Smith and Crystal Riley). A 5-foot-8 point guard, Roper sounds like a similar kind of player.
If Kentucky can find one more capable post player to rotate with Akhator and Rice, it would give Mitchell an eight-player rotation. That is what he used this past season in going 25-8 and reaching the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16.
Bottom line: Next season’s team will have no margin of error for injuries, suspensions or, heaven forbid, more transferring, but it still has enough talent to win 20-plus games and make the NCAA Tournament.
Such a return to normalcy would seem Mitchell’s best chance to generate positive momentum toward the task that will ultimately determine his fate: recruiting.
Kentucky’s two most talented players, Epps and Akhator, will be seniors next season. With so few players on scholarship, Mitchell’s quandary is that his program needs a massive infusion of talent at exactly the time when the Great Player Exodus figures to make recruiting more difficult than it’s been in years.
Until Roper’s commitment, following Kentucky women’s basketball recruiting this spring has been like watching a run on a bank: Uncertainty and attrition have fed on themselves to create even more uncertainty and attrition.
I do not think there is a deep, dark secret that has led to the player departures. Instead, it is an accumulation of factors that have built up over time.
Regardless, rival recruiters — in major college sports, the cutthroats could have negative-recruited Mother Teresa — can sew all kind of doubts with what has gone on at UK.
The commonwealth of Kentucky is thought to have an unusually high level of girls’ basketball talent rising through the pipeline. Considered especially strong is the class of 2018, the players who will be high school juniors next year.
Several of those top juniors-to-be are from noted UK strongholds.
Whether that helps or hurts Mitchell could cut either way.
You would think in-state prospects would be the most receptive to a “let’s make Kentucky great again” recruiting pitch.
Conversely, homegrown recruits and their families will be exposed to more negativity about what’s gone on at UK this past school year. Already, Mitchell has lost the commitment of Bullitt East star Lindsey Duvall, the top-ranked in-state player in the 2017 class.
Whether Mitchell survives as coach of the Kentucky Wildcats will be determined by whether he can get recruits and their families to again trust in his program.
Putting a good — and happy — team on the floor next season could be a substantial step toward getting that done.