UK Women's Basketball

UK women's basketball notes: Mitchell shifts Cats' priority to better shooting

Kentucky Wildcats head coach Matthew Mitchell during University of Kentucky women's basketball practice  on Tuesday October 20, 2015 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach Matthew Mitchell during University of Kentucky women's basketball practice on Tuesday October 20, 2015 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Even a layman casually studying the stats can see that the most successful teams in women's college basketball lately have been the best shooting teams.

Last season's national championship game between Connecticut and Notre Dame pitted the country's top two field-goal percentage teams at 54 and 49.2 percent, respectively.

The team that won the Southeastern Conference and was a point shy of getting to the title game, South Carolina, led the league in field-goal percentage at 48.4 and from three-point range at 34.9 percent.

So at the team's annual Media Day on Tuesday, when Coach Matthew Mitchell was asked the one thing he'd like to see his Cats do better this season, he had an easy reply.

"We need to have a higher team field-goal percentage," Mitchell said.

"We need to shoot the ball better. We have been a top-10 basketball team, and we have not had a field- goal percentage as a team on par with the other top-10 programs."

And as he's gone through an offseason of self-critique, Mitchell said he hasn't done as good a job as he should of helping Kentucky's players get the best shots that have the best chance to go in.

He has been careful to work on teaching each individual player what is a "good shot" for her specifically. There have been more repetitions for those players at those shots.

On the walls of the women's practice facility in the Joe Craft Center are new charts where each player can see her individual percentages at each specific place on the floor.

The focus in the past has been on effort and intensity, but he said it's shifted a little this season.

"My mindset was always let's give them freedom to go out and make plays," he said. "We can still do that, but I just need to be more clear on, 'Hey, Makayla Epps, this is a really good shot for you and you need to take that shot, and if not, you need to make one more pass and let's get a great shot instead of an OK shot."

Kentucky shot 39.9 percent from the field last season, the fourth lowest of the Mitchell era, and 28.6 percent from three-point range, which was the lowest in his time at UK.

Improving overall team shooting clearly has become a point of emphasis this preseason, point guard Janee Thompson said.

"The way we can do that is focusing on our shot selection and working hard in practice," the senior said. "I think we have a really hard-working group. They get in the gym all the time, and I definitely think that will help us improve our shooting percentage this year."

UK picked to finish fifth; Epps honored

Several national preseason polls have Kentucky in the top 20, but it might only be good enough to get the Cats middle of the road in the Southeastern Conference.

The preseason media poll has Kentucky picked fifth overall behind South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.

The Gamecocks, who won the regular-season conference and tournament championship, return their top three scorers and top two rebounders from last season. They are coming off the program's first NCAA Tournament Final Four appearance.

South Carolina returns senior guard Tiffany Mitchell, whom the media overwhelmingly voted as the preseason SEC Player of the Year, as well as star post players Alaina Coates and A'ja Wilson.

All three were picked to be preseason All-SEC in the voting, as was junior guard Makayla Epps, who led Kentucky in scoring last season.

Kentucky connections

If you listen closely at Memorial Coliseum or Rupp Arena, there's always a slightly different sound when a Kentucky player from the state makes a shot.

"There's a little different roar in the crowd," Mitchell said. "Whenever we make a basket, they all cheer, but when a kid from Kentucky makes a basket, it's just a little bit different, and I can't explain it any other way than she's from Kentucky and it means something."

Games this season have the potential to sound significantly different with five players from inside the state in Marion County's Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, 2015 Miss Basketball Maci Morris from Bell County and Allen County-Scottsville's Morgan Rich.

Walk-on Makenzie Cann from Anderson County will sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules.

"If we could get 15 players all from Kentucky, that would be my preference," Mitchell said. "That has not been possible over the years, but any time that a player meets the criteria of being high character and strong work ethic and a desire to play defense, and she's from Kentucky, that's a bonus to me."

One of the newcomers from the Bluegrass State can't wait to hear the crowd's roar. "Being from Kentucky, it's just always been a dream of mine to be Miss Basketball," Morris smiled, "and I accomplished that and getting to be at UK was also a dream of mine as well, so I'm just blessed."

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