John Clay

Mitchell and Gillispie in step

John Clay
John Clay

In his first year as head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, Billy Gillispie started slowly, suffered injuries, improved in conference play, closed strong and finished hopeful about the future.

Turns out, Billy G.'s story wasn't unique.

You might not have noticed, but over on the women's side, Matthew Mitchell did the exact same thing.

True, Mitchell's team came up shy of the NCAA Tournament, finishing 17-16 overall. Records aside, some of the same on-the-court things Billy G. fought through, Mitchell fought through, too, on the way to building optimism about season two.

"I think I'm much more comfortable, and I think our players are, too," said the 37-year-old Mitchell on Wednesday at the UK women's media day. "I think, always, that if you've done it right in year one, it should be easier from that standpoint."

"Doing it right," might have pushed the Cats through year one. After all, his team was, as Mitchell put it Wednesday, "challenged offensively."

It finished last in the Southeastern Conference in field-goal shooting, at 37.8 percent. It was 11th in scoring, at 61.3 points per game. It shot 36.6 percent and averaged 55.1 points per game in league play.

Plus, players kept showing up in street clothes. Forward Eleia Roddy missed the season's first dozen games after knee surgery the year before. Guard Carly Ormerod missed 16 games with a foot injury. Talented freshman guard Amber Smith missed 12 games because of a torn ACL.

Alas, a tough early schedule produced a thud of a start. The women opened 4-7. By league play, UK was 6-8. Not exactly where you want to be entering the nation's toughest women's basketball conference.

"I don't think we would have performed as well as we did in the conference had we not had the kind of schedule that we had last year," Mitchell said. "It did expose some weaknesses that we had. It did, when all the injuries we had hit, we had to become very creative, we had to become very resourceful. All those things served us well on the way to a fourth-place finish in the conference."

Fourth in the SEC is darn good. UK won at 18th-ranked Auburn. It beat 14th-ranked Georgia at Georgia. It ended the regular season 8-6, then beat the Lady Bulldogs again in the SEC Tournament, before losing to No. 6 Louisiana State. It nearly made the case that a 15-15 team deserved an NCAA bid.

It was Mitchell's first go-around as a head coach in the SEC. He'd been an assistant in the league. He'd been a head coach for two seasons at Morehead State. But he had not been an SEC head coach.

"I was talking to my dad about this the other day," said Mitchell. "I felt like I received very good training in this league, from Pat Summitt to Mickie DeMoss, and Carol Ross and Carolyn Peck in between there. They helped me understand what it takes to be successful in this league. That training allowed a team that struggled offensively to be very competitive and finish in the top four. That was something I was grateful for and something I was very happy about because you don't know until you go through it."

As year two is about to begin, is Mitchell more confident after what he went through in year one?

"I think it's fair to say that I received confidence from last season," he said. "But I think what's important there though is that if you ever believe that you have arrived at all the answers, I think that's a bad place to be."

Mitchell isn't at that place, nor does he want to be. Turns out, however, that after the hard-earned progress of year one, there are pair of UK basketball coaches looking forward to year two.