UK Women's Basketball

UK’s Mitchell takes responsibility for basketball team ‘upheaval’

Seven straight NCAA Tournaments.

Four Sweet Sixteen trips in the past five years.

Seven straight seasons with 24 or more victories.

All of those numbers mean something to Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell.

But there are other numbers swirling around the Cats coach these days.

Six players who have parted ways — five who transferred out and one dismissal — with the Kentucky program since October.

Two commitments, including a McDonald’s All-American, who have backed out of their promise to play for UK in the last two days.

And now all three assistant coaches are gone with the Wednesday morning announcement that Camryn Whitaker is leaving the staff.

The math is eye-opening and the common denominator appears to be Mitchell, who spent much of his day explaining the problems within his program, the departures and his plan to get UK through it all.

“That is an incredible turnover and that is a tremendous upheaval and somewhere along the way, I didn’t communicate well enough for them to want to stay,” he said of the player departures and some of the staff exits. “That’s 100 percent on me. That’s my responsibility.”

There are no easy explanations for why Mitchell had nine total player departures in his first eight seasons and then six in one season.

“What would be so great is if you could answer that in one sentence,” he said of the exits of players like Linnae Harper, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Batouly Camara in the past year. “I don’t know if it’s satisfactory to people, but I just have to be honest with you: every situation is personal and different.”

On Wednesday morning, a contrite and quiet Mitchell told the Herald-Leader that he has done plenty of self-reflection recently.

“You think something is rolling along well, and you think it’s going to keep rolling along well, and that’s a mistake that you make,” he said.

The head coach acknowledged that he perhaps took a step back, got complacent, a few years ago when the program was winning and demands of his family moved to the forefront.

“Every coach has challenges, but I think it’s a unique challenge when you have young children,” he said. “People who have had young children understand it’s a hamster wheel you’re in just running all the time. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Maybe those things led to him not being as accessible as he’s needed to be to players and staff.

“I do not feel like I’ve been spread too thin to not be effective,” he said. “Can it get better and can I do a better job of managing my schedule? I think that’s always challenging in this environment, and I’ve certainly learned a lot about that.”

Another admission from Mitchell on Wednesday morning included his struggles with keeping a coaching staff on board, including the two coaches moving on and another not having his contract renewed after this past season.

UK has had eight different assistant coaches on staff in the past three years.

“I have thought long and hard about ‘How have you not been able to get this right?’ I promise you I’ve thought about that,” Mitchell said. “If anybody said that, I don’t know how you could argue with that, that I have had trouble meshing a staff together.”

He’s been desperate to try to re-create his staff that included Kyra Elzy, current Ole Miss coach Matt Insell and Shalon Pillow, whom Mitchell dismissed after the 2014 season.

That group helped UK sign three consecutive top 10 recruiting classes that included four McDonald’s All-Americans.

With what he called a “revolving door” of assistant coaches, there wasn’t always a soft place to land for Kentucky’s players when the going got tough.

“The kids in the team room need to see some stability,” he said. “And the only person who can do that is me, and I have to get that done. I feel like we have a plan forward.”

‘Going to come out swinging’

The thread that ran throughout the day for Mitchell was to help players “see a path forward.”

The program’s winningest coach thinks that path starts with staff continuity, including hiring Elzy back after she parted ways with Tennessee in April.

Elzy already is hard at work trying to recruit for the future, including re-courting lost McDonald’s All-American Lindsey Corsaro from Indianapolis as well as solidifying the 2017 class.

“We have a plan going forward,” Mitchell said, and UK still might look to add high school or junior-college players to bolster a thin roster. But he doesn’t want to add players just for the sake of adding players.

And while it seems like an uphill climb trying to convince recruits that things are better, he thinks they will see evidence soon.

“Over the coming weeks, you’re going to see a staff that’s attractive to people and we’re going to come out swinging,” he said. “This is a really rough time, but we’re getting better through it.”

Kentucky still has plenty to sell.

“It’s not going to happen overnight and everything that’s happened here hasn’t happened overnight,” he said. “It will take us some time, but I have no doubt that we will get there.”

During one of the biggest recruiting weekends of the year last week, Mitchell decided to stay home to meet with his own players. He spoke to their parents as well.

“I’m not doing a lot of recruiting outside the building right now,” Mitchell said. “I’m recruiting inside the building, trying to settle them down. I’ve had good conversations with all of them.”

Kentucky returns a core nucleus of players, including its leading scorer, Makayla Epps, and five of its top six scorers.

Mitchell saw many signs of a young, tough team that was able to bounce back from losing four of five games in the middle of the season to win 10 of its final 12 and advance to the Sweet 16. He likes his chances.

“We will have a tough Kentucky team next year,” he assured. “We will have a good Kentucky team.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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