UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky’s new assistant coaches have strong bonds, common goal

Kentucky women’s basketball assistant coach Niya Butts talked to media at Joe Craft practice facility on Wednesday May 25, 2016 in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky women’s basketball assistant coach Niya Butts talked to media at Joe Craft practice facility on Wednesday May 25, 2016 in Lexington, Ky.

It’s a word rolled out with regularity by head coaches to describe their team and coaching staff: family.

The three new assistant coaches hired by embattled Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell certainly gave off that familial vibe when they met with the media for the first time Wednesday.

The newest hire, Hall of Famer Lin Dunn, said she thinks of her new boss “almost like a son” before giving a sideways glance and a smirk.

“Not a grandson, but a son,” quipped the 69-year-old, who has won more than 500 games at the college, professional and international levels.

It was that connection to UK’s current players that convinced the coach to come out of retirement. She spent a lot of time with them while working as a consultant last season.

“I’d watched practices and I sat in on meetings and really kind of got attached to (Makayla) Epps and Evelyn (Akhator) and Maci (Morris) and some of the players,” she said. “That made it easier to say yes.”

It’s almost a sisterly connection for Kentucky’s other two coaches, Niya Butts and Kyra Elzy, former roommates and teammates on a national championship team at Tennessee and longtime best friends.

They even have friendly disagreements like sisters do.

When Butts left Mitchell’s staff eight years ago, Elzy inherited Butts’ office at the Joe Craft Center, the middle one in a row of three just down the hall from Mitchell.

So there was a bit of a back-and-forth for that familiar space when they returned to coach together for the first time in their long friendship.

“Coach Butts moved back into her old office, which was my old office, but Coach Mitchell wanted me to move down closer to his office, so I guess Coach Butts did win,” Elzy said.

Not exactly, Butts clarified later.

“What she didn’t tell you is she’s already confiscated all of my furniture out of there,” said Butts, who left UK eight years ago to take the head coaching job at Arizona. She was fired in April.

The best friends, who always have had to rely on late-night phone calls and annual girls’ trips to reconnect, now are just down the hall from each other. Dunn has known Elzy and Butts for decades and has been close with Mitchell since he helped work camps for Pat Summitt at Tennessee around that same time.

“Kyra, Niya, Matthew and I all have a connection to Pat,” Dunn said. “There’s that connection there.”

Mitchell is hopeful these longtime connections can help him put Kentucky back together again.

“Surround yourself with people you can trust,” Dunn advised Mitchell. “Make sure it’s a good fit. ... I’ve made some hires I wish I could do over in the past through the years.”

Since October, five players have transferred out of the program, one graduated and transferred and another was dismissed. Both of UK’s 2016 signees were released from their national letters of intent and opted to go elsewhere. Many future Cats commitments also have balked.

The carnage doesn’t end in player defections. In the past three seasons, eight assistant coaches have parted ways with the program, including all three from last season’s 25-8 team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Boats in hurricanes have seen calmer waters than Kentucky has the past few months. But that didn’t seem to dissuade Elzy, Dunn or Butts.

“We can’t go anywhere but up from here,” Elzy said. “I keep telling (Mitchell): There are better days to come. We must weather the storm.”

The new staff members will do that together, they said.

“It’s great to work with people you respect,” Butts said. “You don’t mind going to battle with those people every day.”

The trio and their head coach are in for more than a few battles, specifically the public relations sort. But all of these assistant coaches have taken part in rebuilding processes — two of them at Kentucky — which makes it easier.

“The first time we were really trying to get the program on the map, sign the first McDonald’s All-American, break into the top 25,” Elzy said of her start at Kentucky. “So it was a different challenge. This time, we’re coming in with a lot of negativity surrounding the program, trying to keep it on the national-contender level and get it over the hump.”

That starts with players. With the recent commitment from 2016 point guard Jaida Roper of Memphis (a former Louisiana Tech signee), the Cats’ decimated roster now sits at seven.

None of the new assistant coaches addressed how UK will beef up the roster but said they’re working hard to fill the holes. They didn’t rule anything or anyone out.

“Right now, we’re taking any leads we can get,” Elzy said. “We’re doing a lot of research, a lot of phone calls. We want to bring the best people who can help us win games. If it’s seven, we’ll train them for the mentality that we need to win games.”

A lot of work is being done behind the scenes to address what Butts called “roster issues.” She said there’s not a magic number of players UK needs to be successful next season.

“We’re just trying to move forward the best we can in a positive manner, and we feel pretty good about where we are so far and some of the feedback we’ve gotten,” the former Arizona head coach said. “We’ll just keep pounding the pavement and make it happen.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader