As Matthew Mitchell traveled around the country visiting 32 prospective recruits in 21 days last month, the Kentucky women’s basketball coach says he learned something reassuring.
Even after a year when player and coaching staff upheaval shook the foundations of UK Hoops, Mitchell says, “The brand, I don’t know if it’s surprising or not, but (it) was very resilient.”
Over the course of the 2015-16 school year, Kentucky saw seven players depart its program for various reasons. After the season, two assistant coaches quit, while Mitchell dismissed a third over what he termed Thursday as “philosophical disagreements.”
Both of UK’s 2016 signees — including McDonald’s All-American Lindsey Corsaro — asked for and received releases from their letters of intent. Two of the three high school prospects who had verbally committed to Kentucky for the 2017 class also reneged.
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Left on the Wildcats roster are seven recruited, scholarship players who are eligible for the 2016-17 season.
The quandary for Mitchell and his new coaching staff: In a time when Kentucky acutely needs new talent, it must make its pitch to prospects amidst the challenging sales environment created by last year’s upheaval.
On Thursday morning, in the coach’s office in the Joe Craft Center, I asked Mitchell what he is telling prospects about the exodus that befell an otherwise successful UK program.
“You just try to paint a picture, these are the things that happened, they were not related to anything nefarious going on, or any violation of NCAA rules,” the UK coach said. “And I believe by now, something would have been revealed if it had been some type of mistreatment of the players.”
When he made in-home recruiting visits this fall, Mitchell said his goal was to be as transparent as possible without violating the privacy of the departed players.
Mitchell says the four players who exited the Kentucky program either before last season or very early in the year are not linked in his mind with the three who left after UK fell to Washington in the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
“The first one (Chrishae Rowe) was a dismissal,” Mitchell said. “One (Morgan Rich) had to do with a program requirement (that was not met). The other two, (Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers), there really was no reason. They were unhappy, so they left.”
Yet even after Kentucky went 25-8 and made its fifth trip to the NCAA tourney round of 16 in the past seven years, three more players quit.
“One (Ivana Jakubcova) was a graduate transfer who was ninth (on the team) in minutes (and) left,” Mitchell said. “And then two other players (Batouly Camara and Alexis Jennings) departed at the end of the season. We all talked to them, and they felt like they could do something better.”
Mitchell has spent most of his career in the cutthroat world of major-college sports, but he says he was still taken aback by the level of negative recruiting his program faced amidst last season’s tumult.
“When there was blood in the water, you saw the viciousness, the vicious side of what can happen,” he said. “I think I underestimated — that’s where your strength becomes your weakness, you believe in the goodness of people — so I probably shouldn’t have been as blindsided as I was, but it was more harsh than what I thought it would be.”
Said Mitchell: “A lot of good things have happened in this program, (but) how quickly it descended into ‘No you don’t want to go there. He’s not a good guy. That’s not a good place. What’s going on? What’s happening?’”
Looking forward, UK has two public commitments for 2017 — South Carolina high school guard Kameron Roach and Florida junior-college guard Amanda Paschal. Harlan County forward Blair Green recently became the first 2018 recruit to commit to Kentucky.
To be determined is whether Mitchell can continue to attract the kind of talent that can keep Kentucky where it has been the past seven seasons — among the top 10 to 15 programs in women’s college basketball.
Starting with Jennifer O’Neill in 2010, UK has signed at least one McDonald’s All-American every year since (though 2016’s, Corsaro, instead wound up at UCLA).
“I would tell you, I’m not sure the measure for us needs to be McDonald’s All-Americans,” Mitchell said. “As we go through the evolution of our program, I think we are learning some things. I’m not necessarily looking at maybe what the public is looking at. So if a kid has a (ranking) number by her name and you are saying that is the right player for Kentucky, that’s not our formula.”
Mitchell says that should not be interpreted as a coach lowering expectations after a tough stretch.
“We certainly have a plan. I think that getting to a Final Four and winning a national championship is possible here,” Mitchell said. “And that’s our goal every day.”