The father of a player long committed to Kentucky called and demanded answers.
“What in the world is going on there?” he asked in April. “There just has to be something going on.”
Still to this day, Matthew Mitchell can’t fully answer that question. The Kentucky coach stopped trying long ago.
“You just couldn’t explain it to anybody,” he said recently of the mass exodus of 2016. “You just had to let it absolutely bottom out.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
When the program seemed like it had bottomed out, a new bottom would emerge.
By the middle of May, the carnage was complete: Six players parted ways with Kentucky — all for what appear to be varying reasons — five transferred to different programs and the sixth was kicked off the team for “a failure to uphold standards of the program.”
The entire 2016 signing class opted to pull out and most of the original 2017 class backed away slowly, too.
One assistant coach was asked to leave and the other two opted to go on their own.
“It was tough just because you never knew who else might decide to leave,” sophomore guard Maci Morris recalled.
But at that point, the six scholarship players who remained decided they would stick it out for one another.
“We like each other,” Morris said. “We had a good bond and none of us wanted to leave (Makayla) Epps and Evelyn (Akhator) out to dry. We wanted to stay together for them.”
So they stayed together: Epps, Akhator, Morris, Taylor Murray, Alyssa Rice and Makenzie Cann.
And together they turned what felt like the longest of nightmares into an almost dream season with the Cats (21-10) finishing fourth overall in the strong Southeastern Conference and among the top 16 teams in the country.
They have a chance to write their own ending while playing on the cozy courts of Memorial Coliseum and possibly Rupp Arena in the NCAA Tournament, which starts on Friday at noon against Belmont.
The lesson I needed to learn was I could be a better coach. I could be better. I was good, but I could be better. … I’ll be a much better coach going forward now.
There will be lots of talk this week about the players that left UK and went other places, specifically Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Jaycee Coe (Western Kentucky) and Linnae Harper (Ohio State) because they are returning to Lexington with their new teams to play in the tournament this weekend.
There will be lots of reopened inquiries and new head scratching about what happened in 2016.
But none of that matters to these UK players — and the few other players who decided to join them after the turmoil — for this season or their coaches.
It hasn’t been the smoothest of rebuilds or retools, but the players say they’re proud of the team they’ve become this season.
“I feel like we’re shocking the world,” said Epps, Kentucky’s emotional leader. “We’re doing everything that nobody said we would and I’m very proud of the team for that.”
In her four years at UK, Epps said she’s never played for a more selfless team. The adversity that nearly crippled the program has helped them grow on and off the court.
“There’s a whole lot of love,” she said. “We work hard for each other and regardless of what anybody says about us, we know who we are, we know what we stand for and that’s what we go out and try to prove every night on the court.”
‘I could be better’
A light cuts through the cold, early-morning darkness at Mitchell’s house nearly every day.
Between 4 and 4:30 a.m. when the others in his family are still asleep, the UK coach starts his day. He spends the first hour on himself: praying, reading scripture or other books that inspire him.
“I always got up early, but now I am getting up a little bit earlier so I can have that time to get myself settled and strengthened for the day because a bunch of things can get at you in this job and you never know what the day holds.”
He texts recruits and signees in the morning before he leaves for the office, which is like an extension of home now, too.
People like Lin Dunn, a Hall of Fame coach who came out of retirement to help Mitchell regroup, Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts and former UK guard Amber Smith all joined the staff this offseason and are helping with the rebuild.
Mitchell learned during the craziness that was April and May of last year how important all of that was to him.
“The support of the people in the fox hole with me strengthened me every day,” he said, adding that he was buoyed as well by random calls and notes from strangers.
He’s been asked in many different ways on many different days that question about what went wrong. There are no simple answers.
But after going through it all, he vowed to grow from it.
“I’ve learned so many lessons from them about so many things that maybe I’d never learned if everything had been nice and rosy and smooth,” he said.
Having just six scholarship players helped remind him that he needed to focus on connecting with them in real ways.
“Just grateful for the experience, grateful for how they handled it, grateful for every single day and how they became a team whose sum is much greater than its parts,” he said.
They’ve seen subtle changes in their coach.
He hasn’t stopped getting on them in practice. In fact, on Wednesday, Mitchell questioned several players’ hustle and effort. He pushed them hard in preparation for Friday’s first-round game.
But most days, the push is coupled with the pull in for a hug.
Even more than before, he tries to engage them about their lives well beyond basketball, Morris said.
“He takes the time and spends time with us individually,” Epps added. “He always reminds us how much he loves and cares about us, which is something players need to hear. Sometimes he gets on us but then he’ll bounce back right after that and tell us that he loves and cares about us.”
When UK was a deeper team, he might have let his frustration get the best of him and yank a player faster from the game. She might never grow or learn from mistakes.
He’s had to learn to communicate better now.
He’s become a better coach.
Instead of stressing about officiating, he tries to spend more time coaching his team during breaks in the game. He knows that this is a perfectionist, cerebral team that wants his undivided attention.
“The lesson I needed to learn was I could be a better coach,” he said. “I could be better. I was good, but I could be better. … I’ll be a much better coach going forward now.”
All of that has led to a season that went much differently than most imagined a year ago.
And Mitchell is in a much different place than he was a season ago answering calls from concerned parents.
“I am continuing to learn lessons,” Mitchell said. “This team continues to teach me very valuable things for our immediate future and for the future of the program.”
Kentucky departures last year
Players, recruits and assistant coaches who left the Kentucky program, dating to October 2015:
Oct. 15, 2015 —Mitchell announces that Oregon transfer Chrishae Rowe is dismissed for “failure to uphold standards of the program.” She eventually signed with Ole Miss, where she played in six games this season averaging 10.3 points and 3.3 rebounds before sitting out the rest of the season with what was called an “ongoing medical condition.”
Oct. 26 —Junior guard Linnae Harper is granted her release from UK. She eventually signed with Ohio State, where she played in 21 games, averaging 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds while playing 18.9 minutes a game.
Nov. 3 —Freshman guard Morgan Rich, who was never cleared to practice with the team, requests transfer. She eventually signed with Oklahoma and played in three games, scoring three total points.
Nov. 30 — Five games into the season, junior forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers leaves the program, eventually signing with Western Kentucky, where she has played in 25 games with 24 starts averaging 8 points and 3.9 rebounds while playing 20.3 minutes a game.
March 29, 2016 —Junior-college forward Ivana Jakubcova granted her release as a graduate transfer. She eventually signed with Southern Cal, where she played in 29 games this season with eight starts averaging two points, three rebounds in 12.4 minutes per game.
April 14 —Kentucky confirms that it is not planning to renew the contract of second-year assistant coach Adeniyi Amadou. He is now an assistant at Syracuse.
April 25 —Freshman forward Batouly Camara is granted her release by the school. She sat out this season after transferring to Connecticut.
April 25 — UK announces that two-year assistant coach Tamika Williams-Jeter has opted not to return. She is now an assistant at Penn State.
April 25 —2017 verbal commitment Madison Treece reopened her recruitment and signed with Duke.
April 26 —Kentucky confirms it has released McDonald’s All-American Lindsey Corsaro from her national letter of intent. She signed with UCLA where she played in four games this season, scoring six total points while battling an injury.
April 27 — UK announces that assistant coach Camryn Whitaker is pursuing other coaching opportunities and will not be returning to UK after one season on staff. She is now the head coach at Northern Kentucky.
May 4 — Sophomore forward Alexis Jennings requests transfer from UK and eventually signs with South Carolina.
May 17 — After signing with UK, Chanin Scott is released from her letter of intent. She signed with Georgia Tech where she played in 31 games this season, starting nine. Scott has averaged 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing 19.3 minutes a game.
NCAA Tournament Lexington Regional
What: First-round doubleheader
Where: Memorial Coliseum
Noon: No. 4 seed Kentucky (21-10) vs. No. 13 Belmont (27-5)
About 2:30 p.m.: No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (27-6) vs. No. 5 Ohio State (26-6)
Tickets: Available online at ukhoopstix.com, in person at the Joe Craft Center Ticket Office or via phone at 800-928-2287.