The sky might be a little bit cloudy over the Joe Craft Center lately, but it's completely intact, Kentucky's women's basketball head coach assured us.
"The sky's definitely not falling," Matthew Mitchell told the Herald-Leader on Wednesday morning, a day after a third player parted ways with his women's basketball program in as many weeks.
"In fact, the sun's coming up. There's going to be some storms here and there, but I'm not concerned."
The dismissal of Oregon transfer Chrishae Rowe, the unexpected departure of starting guard Linnae Harper and most recently the transfer of true freshman Morgan Rich, look bad, especially in such a short period of time.
But Mitchell said they are "three separate issues that all sort of came to a head at different times."
The most publicly damaging departure was of Harper, the 17-game starter who led the Cats in rebounding at 7.1 a game last season while scoring 9.2 points a game.
All of this happened just a month before UK's season opener versus Rice on Nov. 13. Harper's request and the timing of it were "surprising" he said.
"I didn't ask Linnae to go," Mitchell said of Harper, who has not publicly commented other than a lengthy statement posted to her Twitter account that did not specify why she opted to leave.
"I didn't want her to go. I was looking forward to working with her and helping her become her best."
Without going into great detail about why Harper, who is finishing her fall semester at UK, chose to leave the team, Mitchell did say he hopes the junior finds what she's seeking elsewhere.
"My ultimate goal for Linnae Harper is for her to be happy and successful and if it's not happening here, then I certainly can't play games with her and let her think that you've got to stay for the program or stay for your teammates," he said.
"No, this is her time in college to develop how ever she and her parents and support people see fit. That's my attitude toward it."
Mitchell granted all of the players a full release, meaning they can transfer to whatever schools they choose.
"I don't want this to be a place where you feel like you're locked up in prison," he said. "I want you to want to be here. If people don't want to be here, we wish them well."
Rich, a star guard at Allen County-Scottsville and a top-100 player nationally according to ESPN, hadn't practiced with the team and wasn't available for Big Blue Madness in October because she "had not met certain program standards to practice," a UK spokesman said.
Rowe was dismissed for a "failure to uphold standards of the program."
None of this has been easy on the 10 players left.
"When someone decides they're going to leave, it's painful," Mitchell said. "It's painful for me, painful for them. I didn't want those kids to leave. I didn't want to dismiss Chrishae. You don't want those things to happen."
In nine years at UK, Mitchell has either dismissed or released 12 players, including the three this preseason. The names include Brittany Edelen, Catina Bett, Jackie Sanders, Rebecca Gray, Anna Cole, Maegan Conwright, Bra'Shey Ali, Sarah Beth Barnette and Jaycee Coe.
Without a full review of other schools nationally and their turnover rates, it's hard to compare or measure. But Mitchell said many early departures like Barnette, who transferred to Virginia, remain close to him and the team.
Sometimes it's just not a good fit.
But with each departure, Mitchell said he tries to look within and figure out what could have gone differently.
"Does it make you ask questions and examine: What could I have done better and where did we have a misstep? Did we make a mistake? Did we not make a mistake?" he said. "It's just all part of running an organization that's trying to be excellent."
As for whether or not this will hurt UK in recruiting, Mitchell said he stopped worrying about what other schools are saying about him in recruiting years ago.
"There's plenty of negativity, people that get on Twitter and read tea leaves, but I don't happen to be one of them," he said.
The sky may not be falling for the Kentucky women, but there will be turbulence early in the season as the Cats cope with fewer bodies, including the absence of Makayla Epps, serving the final part of her suspension by missing Sunday's exhibition and the opener versus Rice on Nov. 13.
Mitchell also said on Wednesday that Kentucky will be without sophomore forward Alyssa Rice, who will miss at least a month with a stress reaction in her right foot.
That leaves Kentucky with returners Janee Thompson and Kyvin-Goodin Rogers — both coming back from offseason surgeries — and Alexis Jennings to play with five women playing in a UK jersey for the first time: Evelyn Akhator, Batouly Camara, Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Ivana Jakubcova.
Epps will be able to return to the floor for the trip to Arizona State for the second game of the regular season on Nov. 15.
"We've got to get really tough, really, really smart and play real together here early on at a challenging time," Mitchell said. "I'm excited about the team we're going into the season with. That does not mean it's going to be smooth."