Jen Smith on Basketball

‘We don’t want to be home in March.’ Missing NCAA tourney extra motivation for UK.

Everything University of Kentucky head coach Matthew MItchell had to say during Tuesday’s women’s basketball Media Day:

Opening statement: “Well, we are excited to kick the season off. We had a great summer and experience preparing all summer for Italy and had a great trip. It gave us some idea of the quality people that we are working with. We just started our fourth week of practice and I am very excited. I think this is a special group of people who care a whole lot about each other and are going to look after each other. I am looking forward to getting the season started.”

Q. How much of a head start is the trip to Italy for your program?

Mitchell: Well, I think it’s all how you approach it and we just wanted to make sure we took full advantage of the opportunity that we were given by the athletic department but it is no small expense that we were able to take that trip. We started the first day of summer talking about what it meant to have the opportunity and what we wanted to get out of it. There are so many things we had during the trip whether culturally or educational and we certainly had some basketball benefit from it. The greatest benefit for us was their opportunity to come together as a team and help each other out. When you think about it, sometimes you and your friends go out to the movies and you cannot decide which one to go to or what time. It is hard to get 40 people - we had 40 people on the trip - it’s hard to get 40 people on the same page when you have such a busy schedule. So the greatest thing for me was their character and how they helped each other out, they way they cooperated with each other and supported each other. We had some long days of touring and it was all interesting but not everybody is interested in every single thing you see and we were close quarters for 10 days together and I was so impressed in how they came together and how we have all connected as a family unit and a team that really cares about each other. That was the most awesome thing for me to see. It is a real quality group of young people.

Q. How much does it mean to give Maci (Morris) and Taylor (Murray) a great senior year because of how much they have meant to the program?

Mitchell: Yeah, I feel a huge obligation to the seniors and we don’t just ask them to come here and win basketball games, we ask them to come and fully commit to an experience that is going to help them become good people. There are a lot of early mornings and hard practices and lots of hours in study hall to be a good student and lots of hours in the community and on campus to be a good person and all that is an effort to better yourself so it is a great experience while you are here but also have something to draw on for the rest of your life. These seniors have fully invested in their time at Kentucky and they have given a lot on the court but also been through some turbulent times. They have kind of run the gambit during their time here. For them to really finish off with a special season, I am highly motivated as a coach to help them do that. I know they are motivated to do that as players. I’m looking forward to their senior season. They are going to do great.

Q. For Rhyne (Howard), how long do you think it’s going to take her to get blended into the college basketball level?

Mitchell: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to answer the question, you know, how long it will take her to adjust. You know, the thing Rhyne has going for her, she has a whole lot of talent. Very talented in really every way you can measure a basketball player. She has great size and athleticism and speed and quickness, and so that gets you, you know, to a certain level when you’re extremely talented, physically gifted, that helps out a whole lot.

She’s a very intelligent player. Extremely intelligent. Just has a great feel for the game. Is coachable from the standpoint of picking up on things. You can correct or redirect her, and you’re not telling her the same thing three days later. She can make adjustments. So a lot of giftedness there, and a great person, just so much fun to be around. Great personality. So it will just be, you know, you’ll just have to wait and see how the games play out, but I think she has a chance to be a very good player, and she’s already shown that in the time that she’s practiced with us.

You know, she only played one game with us in Italy because of her USA Basketball experience down in Mexico, which resulted in her being MVP of that tournament and that tells you something about her as a player because there are so many great players on that team and in that tournament. But she practiced with us one time and then flew out to Colorado to prepare with the USA team. Didn’t have the benefit of a lot of preparation, but was able to get on the floor and make a difference in that last game that we played and that was with all of the issues of jet lag and everything else.

So it’s a really exciting time for us to have her in the program. It will take her, like all freshmen, some time to adjust and you have to learn how to play the college game but I’m confident she’ll have a great career here. Great person, great talent, and does things the right way. I look forward to a successful career for her. We’re sure glad she came to Kentucky.

Q. Full-court press, is it back?

Mitchell: It’s alive and kicking. I shouldn’t say alive and well yet, because it doesn’t look too great right now but we’re committed to it. It fits our personnel. We’re not really — we don’t have any 6-5 or 6-6 players, so we don’t have a big, big front court presence but we do have some pretty good size across the board. We have several players who are athletic, fast, explosive in that, you know, 6-1 to 6-3 range that can really move.

So I don’t think it would be the smartest thing for us to kind of sit back and let somebody come at us. I think we do have the athleticism and the personnel to get on the attack. You know, as I was reflecting on last season, and looking at what this season could be, and then overall taking stock of our time here at Kentucky, a lot of kids that remind me of this team worked hard to create an identity for Kentucky that was aggressive and attacking and so I’m sure excited that we have a collection of players that can play this way, and it’s actually the way that they will probably have the most success.

So it’s hard to commit to. You’ve got to trust each other and you’ve got to trust what your coaches are saying but we’ve come a long way in the last three weeks. It started kind of taking shape towards the end of last week and we had a good day yesterday. So we’re going to work hard at the full-court press this year.

Q. Have you found through the years that players prefer playing in that style versus others?

Mitchell: I think they like the results at the end. It’s tough. It’s very different than if you haven’t played it. You know, you’ve got to take chances. You’ve got to leave your player and go guard your player, and it’s unusual to start and so it takes them time to develop. You have to have some patience and tenacity, kind of come together as a coach, just like this is what we’re going to do. You know, you’ve got to let them understand that you’re going to make some mistakes and that’s where we are right now. We’re making plays. We’re not in the right place but we’re starting to make plays, and that’s kind of the first step.

Once you go through the pain of kind of getting to — and pay the price, the kind of conditioning and the attitude and the tenacity you have to develop, once you go through that process, I do think they start having a lot of fun, especially when it starts to show some results and that’s been our experience in the past here with our teams that have been able to create a high volume of turnovers and create a tempo and a game that’s uncomfortable for the opponent. They do have fun. But it’s not always fun getting to that spot and it’s a lot of hard work.

Listen, I’m not telling you today — we’ve got to go earn that. That’s how we want to play and that’s how we’re going to work hard to play but there’s a lot of work that goes into making it successful.

Q. How much do you discuss not making the tournament last year, or do you at all, and how much of a motivation is that for everybody involved?

Mitchell: Well, we have discussed it some. At any times — and players this these moments where it’s like, man, this is hard or this is definitely. I wouldn’t call them complaints but just normal reactions to a difficult practice or to an intense — you know, the full court press real little ramps up a practice and there’s not a lot of walking around and talking. We’re creating a chaotic atmosphere in practice, and that gets people out of their comfort zone.

We have a lot of great students on our team that work really hard in the classroom and like their quiet time to process the information. Some thinkers on the team. So when you get them out of that and they have to go make some plays, there’s some uncomfortable days, and they are kind of like, is this really what we need to do, sort of tone to their comments, and so I think the assistants have done a good job.

I don’t talk about it a ton. I talk about what we want to do and where we want to go and what we believe the team is capable of achieving, and we certainly think the NCAA Tournament is a realistic goal and is something that we should expect of ourselves this season. But I’m not spending a ton of time. We’re not putting signs up over there. I’m really just trying to direct this team toward being their very best every day; and if it helps them, remind a player here or there, we might say it. But it’s nothing we want to experience this year. We don’t want to be home in March out of the NCAA Tournament. It’s something we have enjoyed doing and competing in, and it’s something we’ll be striving for. I think we can achieve this year.

Q. Question regarding Dorie Harrison’s status and how you approach the situation with her undisclosed illness.

Mitchell: You know, we just — Dorie is such a great player for us but she’s got to get healthy. So as you start to work on the team — you’re evaluating everyone and how they perform. As the team’s coming together, we’ve had various people with missing time to different things. That’s just part of coaching and putting together the team. You never know where the overall health of the team will end up. We still don’t know where this team will end up from an overall health standpoint. Whenever a player is not healthy, you’ve got to give them the time to get healthy and so that’s what we’re supporting Dorie with and what we would do for any player. We’ve got Ogechi who is trying to round back into form that was looking good, and then she went down with an injury in the first exhibition game.

So that’s just part of coaching and those things happen to a team and you’ve got to as a team, whenever somebody misses some time, you’ve got to make up for their absence collectively. And so that’s how we will handle it and we’re looking forward to Dorie getting back and joining us when she gets healthy, so she’s got our full support there.

Q. Question regarding how the team will adjust with Dorie out ...

Mitchell: Like I was saying, Dorie is a very good athlete but she’s not — her absence doesn’t dramatically change any of our plans, and the style that we play, you know, when she’s able to return, she’ll fit real well with but it certainly is not something where we’ll make a dramatic shift because of her absence right now. And you know, what we’ve added are two really versatile freshmen who are 6-2 and have some length who can — who have perimeter skills but also have the height in a pressing and in a pressure defense scenario, can get out and guard multiple positions, so they can guard guards and they can guard posts.

And so, again, with that collection — Rhyne is about as tall as Tat Wyatt, who is a sophomore and who has looked great in preseason and is going to have a good sophomore year. So we’ve got a lot of those players that kind of look the same size, same athleticism, so that’s where I think we can really be versatile defensively, be disruptive, be up-tempo and attacking, and I think our personnel really fits that.

Q. The personnel you have, do you still feel like you could be a good offensive team in the halfcourt? I know that’s been a struggle, sometimes when you are playing that 40-minute style in past years?

Mitchell: The thing that gives me some real optimism and excitement about our team is we’re shooting the ball well. You know, some players that — our returners have worked hard, and Maci is shooting the ball. So excited for all of you to see Taylor Murray and just how she is playing offensively with a lot of confidence and shooting the ball well and scoring the ball well around the bucket in real creative ways in different ways, and shooting the three well. And you know, Amanda Pascal, who you know, had an adjustment period last year from trying to get back and play after sitting out her sophomore year at gulf coast with a knee injury, you know, she looks so much more confident and shooting the ball better.

Our sophomores who had just so much swimming in their brain playing in the post in a really great league last year for veteran posts, I mean, my goodness, we had some good senior and redshirt junior post players that just were tough, tough to deal with for those young players. They are much more confident and Keke and Tot are shooting the ball really well.

Then you add in two really good shooters with Rhyne and Blair (Green), and so that is what’s really excited me being on the attack, pretty versatile team, people can handle the ball, people can get out in transition to make plays. The defense creates some offense for you. But in the halfcourt, worked really, really hard on just timing and spacing and thought we had a productive summer with that. In years past, we had some teams that didn’t shoot the ball well but we created so many turnovers, kind of was able to make up for any deficiencies we had maybe in shooting percentage. But I think this team has got the potential to really shoot the ball great, and I’m excited about our offense, I really am.

Q. You mentioned Blair. What have been your impressions and your expectations for her?

Mitchell: My initial impression was just pretty much blown away by her preparation coming in here. And so over the 12 years, 12 summers, you’ve welcomed 12 freshmen classes in, and I would say the majority of them are not — no knock on them — they are not ready for the intensity and they are not ready for the physical conditioning part of it. So we let all the freshmen, all the high school seniors who signed with us, we give them material, this is how you can prepare to try to be ready to come in for the summer. It’s hard for them to do that on their own and not a lot of them come in and do that. You can count the ones who have been able to do that, you know, pretty quickly. You can run down that list.

So Blair is one of those people. She came in, very fit, very focused, with a real genuine humility, which the way we define that in our program is an accurate view of yourself. Not undervaluing, going, oh, well, I’m no good, or not saying I’m the greatest. Just having a real accurate view of yourself. She came right in and was willing to listen and learn and accept coaching, but she didn’t back down from anybody, either and just came right in and just I thought made a statement early on that I’m going to be on the floor and I’m going to play.

You know, we have always valued effort and hustle and just grit, toughness, intensity, willingness to play defense and those are things that we highly value, and she came in just demonstrating those. It was not any type of learning curve for her. She came right in and could do those things. Now, there’s all sorts of coaching points you can give her to help her adjust to the college game but I have not had to coach her effort one time, and I’ve had to coach her technique, but when you don’t have to coach a freshman’s effort, then you can really make some progress when you’re trying to help them get better as basketball players. Really excited for her.

She and Rhyne both, I want to make sure that it’s clear: They have got things they have to learn and do better and they have got to get lower and more physical and they have got to get stronger and all those things. But just from an effort standpoint and an attitude and coach ability standpoint, I’m really impressed with both of them.

Q. You mentioned former players liking to play that style, does it help having someone like Amber Smith who kind of started that and is on your staff now and what has she brought?

Mitchell: We were a little worried early in the summer, she was our best on ball defender at 29 years old. I told her, I was like, Amber, your eligibility is completed and you’ve got to become the best teacher out here and get these kids playing the way you did. Amber, I think it’s invaluable. I don’t think you can understate the passion that she has for Kentucky, and the pride she has on being here on the ground floor when we really took this thing in a direction it had never gone before. I think she connects with the players there. I think when you don’t practice hard and Coach Mitchell is getting on you, you might be thinking, he’s a head coach and he’s never satisfied.

When it’s coming from an assistant coach who just takes it personally, that this is a standard that I helped to establish, I think it holes a lot of weight.

She’s got a great way about her. When she was here, in my 12 years, one of the most popular players we’ve ever had. You see her around the facility, she’s talking to everybody. She’s got a great, great way about her, a great heart for people, and she has an absolute heart for service to help these players get better, and really, she and Kyra and Niya are committed to doing whatever is necessary to boost these players up and teach them what they need to know so we can have a great season. And we are in really good shape with Amber being back on staff, and also Kyra and Niya doing a great job.

Q. Taylor now being a senior, how have you seen her develop over the last couple years as a leader?

Mitchell: You know, Taylor has been willing to work on her game and get better each year and I think that always speaks volumes to players because she’s played a lot. You know, she started a bunch of games and she’s always played. She’s always been a part of what we’re doing in a real major way. Sometimes when you’re able to show up as a freshman and you’re playing as a freshman and you’re contributing, sometimes people might get satisfied with that. She never did. She’s made a jump and a progression every year with her game and you know, I think that speaks volume and then just her willingness to get out of her comfort zone and become more vocal. She is not a really verbal — she is not a loud person.

She talks plenty and is verbal but doesn’t project her voice. She’s a bit mild mannered with the volume of her voice and just her willingness to communicate and get out of her comfort zone. It’s not the easiest thing to do. It’s been something I really admire. High-quality, high-character person, and somebody we’re ready to go to battle in the SEC with and really, really proud of her.

Q. Question regarding the renovations to Memorial Coliseum that are coming and the new video board ...

Mitchell: It’s exciting times at Kentucky. It’s exciting times for the commitment that everyone on this campus has toward this world-class university. I’m telling you, man, this is an awesome place to go to school and to come get an education and it starts there to me. It starts with president Capilouto and his vision. And I’ll say this, too, Mary Lynne Capilouto is a great visionary, too. Those two people are leading and I think it starts there.

It is fun to bring people on this campus and show them what’s available to them from an education standpoint and an overall experience. The new student center is just — I am just still — I’ve been in there a bunch of times now and I just still get so excited walking in there because of the quality of the facilities we’ve been able to create, the energy that it’s created on campus, the commitment to excellence that it signals on our campus.

And now, what Mitch Barnhart has done in 17 years, 18 years, to improve Kentucky athletics is remarkable, and we — there are a lot of things that needed to be addressed here over the years that we’ve just made sure that we’ve taken care of. And I was with Mitch this morning. We were having breakfast this morning, just talking about things, and he is so fired up and we’re so fired up about Memorial Coliseum, what an important place just in our commonwealth and memorializing the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms and our safety.

It’s just an outstanding building, and his vision for what it can become is just so cool. It’s going to be fun watching what’s going to take place over the next couple of years. It’s already a special place because of what’s happened in that building and the history that exists there, but the future is very exciting for the coliseum.

We had a great event in here last night, I think about 350 fans showed up for meet the wildcats, and you know, we watched videos from our Italy trip and the highlight videos, and it just looks like you’re in your living room watching a high-def television. It is amazing.

I don’t know where they got this thing, but that is incredible and we are going to have some fun there. I just hope they won’t show me too much on the camera because I start sweating and make bad faces on there and that won’t look too pretty on that video board. It signals what’s getting ready to take place here.

Q. Ciara gave you the shoutout on Twitter —

Mitchell: Incredible moment. Incredible moment in my life. I can’t tell you, it was just unbelievable. I mean, can you believe that? Would anyone have ever believed that Ciara would take note of what had to be the worst rendition of her dance? And I continue to be recognized — I wouldn’t say — I don’t know if that was praise. I think it was. There’s like fire emojis, means something — so I think that was praise. I don’t know that there’s ever been a dancer in the history of dance or someone who attempts dance who has gotten more positive energy sent toward them for poor dancing. I know it boggles everyone’s mind. We’ve got to think of a good exit strategy. You’ve got to be sick of seeing it. I’m sick of doing it. Maybe year ten will be a good exit strategy. Maybe Evan will see something at the Elton John concert tonight that we can maybe try to recreate. I can put on the wig or something.

Q. How much better can Maci be — she made such a big jump between her sophomore and junior year. Where are the places you expect her to make a jump this year?

Mitchell: Well, there’s two. I think first of all — and they kind of go hand-in-hand. Trying to get Maci to a point mentally where she understands she can play 30 or 32 minutes on both ends at a real high level. I don’t know where I got off-track maybe with her, maybe putting too much pressure or maybe she heard it on an NBA broadcast, but it always seemed to me — and we talked about this summer; that you’re shouldering a lot of the load offensively so you’ve got to save yourself on defense. You know, she’ll be the first one to tell you that those are the kind of thoughts that are going through her mind, or that’s what would show up on film.

I misspoke there. I’m not saying that that’s exactly what’s in her mind but as we watched film of her, her freshman year, when she was like the third or fourth or fifth option offensively, one of the things we did to try to motivate her in her development is we started putting her on the best player defensively and she really did a good job and didn’t know nearly about defense or fitness or effort her freshman year that she knows now.

Just a mindset of rounding into a defender that’s not just someone holding place down there and that people can pick on, because she wants to have a great senior season and she wants to be a pro, and she’s going to be a pro. She’s going to be a very good professional player, because she took all the coaching to heart and she’s had a tremendous summer of growth as a defender, and she just continues to get stronger.

She can make all the shots. She can go to the rim on you. She can score at the rim off one foot or two feet. She’s got a great pull-up jumper and great three-point jumper and she’s got one of the strongest jab-step step-backs. She’s really got some strength. She can put it on the floor and make you think she’s going by you and get you into a retreat position and she can really stop and get into a step-back jumper that just not many people can do. So she’s just continued to grow her strength, her fitness, her defense, and then her leadership.

So I think she knows, for us this year, that a sub-par effort on defense is not acceptable and you kind of stay on the floor and score 22 points for us, but you’re not hustling to your capability on the defensive end. I think she’s got that mindset fixed right now where she knows how important her defense is. She did a great job in Italy in those three games, and she’s had good, good practices leading in. So I think that’s where you’ll see the growth in Maci this year.

Q. Maci was saying — the step-back jumper she kept missing it her freshman year but kept shooting and you got mad, is that true?

Mitchell: You know, she’s really worked hard on her strength from her freshman year to now. She’s put on — she hasn’t gained a bunch of weight. Just put on a lot of muscle, so she looks fantastic. She’s strong, she’s fit. She had great instincts as a freshman. Just sometimes she just didn’t have the strength to do what her mine thought she could do, and so she’s got that now. You know, Maci has really — she’ll take a shot here or there that I might scratch my head on but I don’t see much about it. She doesn’t take a lot of bad shots. She is a shot maker and I’d rather her shoot the ball than, you know, sometimes try to get rid of it because she can make shots. She’s looked really good in the preseason.

Q. The pre-conference schedule looks like it’s been toned down a little bit this year.

Mitchell: I was thinking about that and then I got to looking at it the other day, and I’m not so sure about that. I thought I was toning it down. Those three games in a row in the Virgin Islands don’t look toned down at all. That early game in the non-conference, you clearly are playing some teams that you have an advantage and that you will be favored in the game. But it’s going to be really important for us to try to take every game that we’re playing and set a tone for how this team is going to play, instead of creating identity early on and no matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to go and sell out and play with tremendous tenacity and focus from the tip to the final buzzer.

And so I think the non-conference schedule is absolutely strong enough to get us prepared for a tough SEC schedule and you know, if we can play hard and have success in the non-conference schedule, we’ll be right where we need to be come conference time.

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