Head Coach Matthew Mitchell
MATTHEW MITCHELL: I appreciate everyone coming out and covering our team. Ninth season that I’m starting here at Kentucky as the head coach, and it is hard to believe that much time has passed. Just really, really excited about this edition of the Wildcats. Very, very optimistic about what they can become. They have an enormous amount of potential. We’re really fortunate to have a strong group of people supporting our students. Our assistant coaches are doing a great job. Tamika Williams and Camryn Whitaker, Adeniyi Amadou are just working extremely hard helping our players develop, and we just have a very large group of people that are interested in helping our players build their character as people and helping them develop as students and helping them develop as players. So I’m real appreciative of the whole organization right now that we have assembled here. I think it’s going to give us a chance for great success in 2015-16, and in relation to the basketball team, I feel like we have a chance if we can become players of great, great work ethic and sacrifice for each other that this can be a really special group. We’re looking forward to it and have high hopes for the upcoming season.
Q. Talk about Janee Thompson as far as her health and where you see her becoming a leader of the team.
MATTHEW MITCHELL: She’s made just terrific progress from a major injury, so anytime you have an injury like that, it’s very difficult to come back from. It happened in January, and I think that in the early stages of her rehabilitation, she really did a good job and knew how important it was for our team for her to be successful with her rehabilitation, and I would say right now it’s a great success. She’s able to practice at a pretty high level. She’s not 100 percent, but she is at a really high functional level right now. She’s not — if we have two practices in a day, she only practices once. There’s some limitations on her as far as volume goes as we work her back in. But the progress is terrific, and it’s pointing toward her having a very healthy and productive senior season. So we don’t — right now, a few weeks out from the opener, it’s not a situation where we’re wondering can she get back and be productive this season. We think that will happen. I’m not sure what that timetable is, and I am just preaching patience on her part and really recognizing when we make progress. She wants it to be done now. She wants to be ready now. She wants to feel great now. In this end or final stage of her rehabilitation and getting back to 100 percent, we don’t want any setbacks because she’s not viewing her progress properly. Then your question about her as a leader, that’s something she and I have discussed a lot. Everyone is looking toward her. She is — she’s been a very good player at Kentucky. She’s been a very productive player at Kentucky. She knows the program. She knows what we’re trying to accomplish. People are looking to her for leadership. And so it’s a difficult thing when you’re coming back from an injury where you’re so concerned, and rightfully so, you have to get concerned about yourself and getting your injury healed. But we’re simultaneously working with a senior leader on the team, so she’s got to pay attention to her attitude every single day. She can’t ride the roller coaster. She doesn’t have that luxury of, “Hey, I don’t feel great today. Some days I feel better than others.” She’s really got to be steady. We’ve talked about that and she’s done a great job with that so far, and she’s really, really important to our team, and I’m excited to see what her senior season can be.
Q. How much are Janee, Linnae (Harper), Makayla (Epps), the foundation?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Well, I’m excited about our backcourt and the depth in the backcourt. I think we’ve added some really exciting players to the three players you just mentioned, but I feel like we have depth in the frontcourt, too. So overall depth is really important for us, and now where we have to get is all of that depth committing to being tenacious defenders, and that’s my job. I have to win their hearts over to make sure that gets done. We just have to be a deep team, and all of that depth has to value defense and disruptive defense. I think our ultimate success this season really rests on how good of a job everybody accepts their responsibility as being a really tenacious defender. That’s what we’ve been successful with. That’s what we have been able to hang our hat on for the last few years here at Kentucky, and this team has everything they need, every physical attribute that’s necessary to play disruptive defense, and so now it’s a matter of each individual understanding her importance there and her responsibility there and accepting that. So depth is — depth could be a very, very great luxury for us, but I’ve always said, depth is only as good as how well each individual progresses and how each individual accepts her responsibility for her role on the team. But this group has the potential to be very deep. We’ll see how that works out.
Q. What does Evelyn (Akhator) add to the team?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Well, the first thing she adds is tremendous character, just from the person that she is. It is powerful when someone who is so talented – and that’s another thing she adds is tremendous talent – but when one of your most talented people is also one of your best people and highest-character person and hardest worker and very consistent from a work ethic standpoint, it makes a difference on your team. When your most talented players are trying to take shortcuts and get by on talent and are not exhibiting high-character actions, that has a negative effect on your team because the players who have to work harder because they’re not as talented get very discouraged when talented players don’t work hard. Evelyn is a player that has tremendous athletic talent, can run, can jump, is aggressive. She has room for growth as a basketball player, but she is very talented, and she works extremely hard. Most of the time when you tell her to do something, you only have to correct her once. She then takes ownership of that information and makes the corrections. Things like that I think are overlooked sometimes. So I think that her value as a high-character person on this team that has a high-level talent, that’s what I would point to right off the bat. That’s where she can make a huge difference for this particular team.
Q. Is there one area in particular right now that you’re thinking, boy, we’ve got to get better?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Yeah, I think we need to have a higher team field-goal percentage. I think we need to shoot the ball at a higher percentage. As I’ve looked at my growth as a coach, I think something that I really need to focus on is what is my role in helping them do that, and I need to make sure that people know what is a good shot for each individual person and then make sure that they get enough repetitions, enough reps in practice or that their schedule is organized where they can do that on their own. But we need to shoot the ball better. You know, we have been a top-10 basketball team, and we have not had a field-goal percentage as
a team on par with the other top-10 programs. So that’s just something that we need to address, and I think that we can. We’ve come a long way in our development as a program over the years, and there’s just some things that we need to do to take the final step to a Final Four and the national championship, and as you just start looking at some of the things that we don’t do as well, you know, as a Connecticut or a Notre Dame or a Stanford, teams that have just been perennial Final Four teams over the last four years. They just shoot the ball at a much higher percentage than we do, and as a coach I have to do a better job of making sure we address that. So some of that is the people on the floor as far as good shooters, and then the other part is the good players on the floor, knowing what’s a good shot and being very disciplined in making those good decisions. So shot selection I think is on the coach. I’ve got to explain that to them. As we’ve tried to build the program on effort and intensity, I think we’ve done a great job there. You know, my mindset was always let’s give them freedom to go out and make plays. I think we can still do that, but I just need to be more clear on, “Hey, Makayla Epps, this is a really good shot for you and you need to take that shot, and if not, you need to make one more pass and let’s get a great shot instead of an OK shot.” I’d say that that would be something that jumps out to me that we’re really trying to address right now and trying to do better. Hopefully you’ll see some improvement there this year.
Q. How about Makayla? Is she still progressing?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: You know, Makayla’s challenge has been for this to be a transformative event in her life. So transform from a person who would meet the standard, whatever that may be, through talent, and start to exceed whatever the standard is and start having a real high personal standard, and that comes through great decision making, really strong work ethic, embracing the leadership that you have because of what your talent brings and your personality brings – and people are drawn to her. And so she has to understand how important the decisions that she makes day after day affect a lot of people, people on our team, affect our fans, affect — she’s a very important figure in this program. So it’s always been about trying to get her to become a strong decision maker, make great choices, and you know, if you’ve — that’s a process that I think all of us should be working on, especially when you’re 19, 20 years old. There are some challenges that come with that. I think she’s made tremendous progress. She has more progress to make, but I think she has a real chance. She’s in an environment where we care enough about her to go through this process of trying to help her transform. We care much more about her as a person than we do as a basketball player. You know, the average life expectancy for a female in the United States right now is north of 82 years, and so what I tell all of our players and what I tell Makayla is you will be on this planet — if you have a pro career you’re still looking at 50 more years on the planet where nobody is really worried about what kind of basketball player you are. So we need to be doing things now – great decisions. They’re on basketball scholarships, so they do identify as basketball players, so if you make good decisions, that’s going to help you as a player, and that will continue on to help you grow as a person after you’re done playing basketball. So that’s what this is all about, and she’s making progress. I’m excited for her future, and it will all — her future will always be determined by the decisions that she ultimately makes, and I’m trying to help her learn how to make great decisions. She’s made progress in that area. She still has room to grow.
Q. Any decision on when she’s going to be back?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Well, what we have laid out is at a minimum, she missed Madness, she’s going to miss the preseason games, she’s going to miss the first game. That was laid out at the beginning of her suspension. If she progresses well and does what she’s supposed to do, then that would be the extent of it. But really what she needs to understand is don’t worry about those types of things, and day-to-day what kind of decisions you make and what kind of choices are you making, and the better those are, the better person she’s going to be and the better player, in fact, she’s going to be. So you have a decision, like, do I go to the gym and get up extra shots or do I stay in my dorm roof and surf the Internet? Just that simple of a decision. And before April I think that that was going to be go get on the Internet or go hang out with some friends or go do something, and I’ll just rely on my talent to go play basketball. So now what you’re trying to do is shift the decision, that, “Hey, I’ve got a chance to be one of the best players in the country, I’m going to spend the hour that I have in the gym.” It’s not earth-shattering, mind-blowing type complicated decisions. Simple decisions: Do I work hard or do I not? Those kind of things are what we’re trying to work with Makayla and all our players on. All of our players have some level of growth. Makayla and I met last week, and she’s grateful for this opportunity to try to improve and get better, but it’ll be up to her ultimately how it ends up.
Q. What do you do with that point guard spot when she comes back? She had a lot of success at that and Janee was out and now she’s back. Do you have to make that decision?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Well, we’re really, really blessed that we have — I think we have three legitimate options at point guard, and how we’ll always evaluate it, whether people like this or not, is we will always start with what’s our — to end the game, who’s our best defensive team, and so if Makayla, Taylor (Murray) and Janee are our three best perimeter defenders, then they’ll be on the floor and we’ll have to figure that out. So where we are right now is we’re not really, really concerned about who’s the starting five, who’s this — Makayla is not going to be in the starting five the first game because she’s not going to be there, so it’s just not a real big concern. We’re right now trying to develop pace, intensity, effort and practice, and that’s just the way that we do it. You know, I have some idea, if somebody came in here and said, “You have to declare a starting five and there’s a team waiting for you to play out there on Memorial and surprise, surprise, you’ve got to go out there and play,” I could get five together and put them out there, but that’s not really anything that’s on my mind. They’re all playing together in practice. So for instance, I had all three of those players were on the floor together. We run an offense in transition that everybody needs to be able to handle the ball, and everyone needs to be able to catch an outlet pass and know what to do. So it’s not quite as structured as maybe some teams, and so at some places — who’s your first string, second string, third string. I think all three of them are going to make significant contributions to our team, so that means at some point, all three of them at some point are going to have to play off the ball somewhere. We’ll get that figured out. What’s your question? Did I answer the question?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: You wanted depth. There’s no depth. We’ll figure that out. If Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps are on the floor at the same time, I think that’s good for Kentucky. Two real good players, hard to guard. I’ll go talk to Cal. Didn’t he play John Wall and Eric Bledsoe together? He came and asked me about platoons. I’ll go ask him about, “How do you play two point guards together at the same time?” We’re good friends like that. We help each other out. Although the platoon situation was very complicated. What you do is five people are on the floor, you send five to the table, and then they buzz the horn and those five people go in and then the other five come out. That’s how I explained it to Cal. (Laughter.) It worked out good. You guys think I don’t know what I’m doing? You might want to rethink that.
Q. How excited are you about adding Evelyn to a front line of a couple big girls?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Yeah, you add one really, really talented, versatile player, and it helps you tremendously. Evelyn is very versatile defensively. She can switch out on screens and guard a guard. So you get Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator in a ball screen, and she can switch onto the guard and Makayla is strong enough and can get in there and use her strength on the post. That’s a real luxury anytime you add someone like that into the mix. And then you look at the progress that Alyssa Rice has made. I think she’s much, much better physically. I think that Alexis Jennings has made great progress on her body and just her physical conditioning. She can run faster and longer, and she’s stronger. Batouly Camara is a freshman that I think is just going to be a terrific player when she starts to figure things out. She has a great heart, great attitude, wants to be good. Ivana Jakubcova can swing from the post to the wing, really versatile player. Any time you can add versatility and talent to the lineup it helps tremendously, especially the way that we like to play. Evelyn is a very exciting development for our basketball program. Very exciting. I think everyone covering and cheering for the team will enjoy watching her and appreciate just the passion she plays with and the effort and the enthusiasm and the energy. It’s just — it’ll be fun to watch.
Q. Can you make a comment about your group of newcomers.
MATTHEW MITCHELL: I really like this group of newcomers because they have willing hearts defensively. So Taylor Murray doesn’t really know everything that she needs to know. It’s impossible. It’s very different than her high school. But the thing I like about her is, blew the whistle yesterday in practice and just said, “This doesn’t look how I want it to look. So here’s how I want it to look.” And then the rest of the practice, she really tried except when she got really mentally, physically fatigued, when she could really control her thinking. She tried to do it the way that we asked her to do it. You don’t have to spend, correct it, blow it again, correct it again, blow it again, correct it again. You’re not having to do that with her or Maci or Batouly. That really does not mean that their transition will be easy, it just means that it might be easier if you are mentally tough enough and you embrace giving great defensive effort into the floor. So where some of the struggles have been like with the Jennifer O’Neill — she’s not here anymore so we can talk about her. Her freshman year she struggled mightily because she didn’t embrace the value of defense, and so it was just, you know, a battle of will between the coach and the player, and so when the player doesn’t battle you on that, so Maci Morris has a long way to go and is by no means a finished product, but she battles every day on defense, and she tries to get better, and she makes plays on defense. Taylor, not a finished product. She makes plays. Batouly gets yelled at multiple times every day on defense, but she’s making plays. So that gives me some optimism that they’re going to have good freshman seasons.
Q. When you’re recruiting somebody now, when you look at them and you think, well, I don’t know how good they’re going to be defensively, but I can instill that will, can you see that?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: Now you’re talking about Matthew Mitchell like three years ago, OK, who had an inflated sense of self, and like, well, I can get anybody to play defense. And if you think about our trajectory, we in 2010 upset a No. 1 seed and went to the Elite Eight with a team that was picked 11th out of 12, but that was some junkyard dog kids, not real talented, but we got after it on defense. So then you have another couple years where people are just getting after it on defense. Now you start looking around, well, the defense is great because I’m a great defensive coach. Alright. And then you maybe get some players that are good athletes and good offensive players, and then you start to say that to yourself, “Listen, I know I can handle defense and I know I can get people to play defense,” and that’s not as easy as it (sounds). I mean that, just — I have learned that over the last three or four years in recruiting, I must be looking — it just needs to be out there in the open. We tell everybody, if you don’t value defense, don’t come here. Don’t even get on the recruiting list. Don’t even waste our time. You have to want to play defense, and it doesn’t mean that you have to be a finished product when you get here; you just have to have some desire. So we absolutely are watching kids walk in the gym, watch them walk out of the gym. We watch how they interact with their coach; we watch how they interact with their parents. I’m watching them more in the summer off the court than I am them on the court. But I can tell you now, if a player is hustling on the boards and she’s hustling on defense, she’s got a chance at Kentucky, and then now it’s flipped to you can probably teach her how to make a layup and we can probably teach her how to set a screen or go get an offensive put-back. I don’t believe I can teach everybody to play defense, so there needs to be some desire there, and it’s a good lesson to learn as a coach. This stuff is hard as far as putting together the best team in the country and trying to get to the Final Four and trying to win a national championship, with that being a byproduct of developing people of high character and people of great, great principles and sacrifice and preparation so they can be successful when they’re done playing. It’s not an easy set of circumstances. It’s a great challenge, but it’s what makes it fun. That’s why I feel like my job is meaningful, because we’re helping people develop. It’s a dynamic set of circumstances that we’re dealing with to try to have a championship program.
Q. Who would you go to if you couldn’t get the ball inside and you had to set up somebody to shoot a 3-point shot?
MATTHEW MITCHELL: I think everybody coming back from the team has improved. That’s been something that we talked about at the end of the last season: “Hey, we’re not shooting the ball — we got a No. 2 seed shooting 38 percent as a team. It’s incredible. What if you could get that from 38 to — let’s don’t worry about
45. Let’s get 38 to 42. What would happen then? What if you shoot 45? My goodness, what are you going to be then?” So we started talking to them, and then as a coach I’ve got to make sure that the practices are developed where they see value in that, and so I think the returners are shooting better. We had a couple shooting drills in practice yesterday where we did better than we did a couple weeks ago, and so we — I think we’ll be able to make enough threes to be dangerous and to win.
Q. You’ve got a number of Kentucky players off the roster and even an assistant coach. Just talk about that, and what does that mean for your program? MATTHEW MITCHELL: Well, listen. I’ve been here now, you know, in the Commonwealth for 13 years. I’ve had two children here. I am firmly entrenched here at the University of Kentucky. I love this place, I love this school, so I consider myself fortunate to be here. I feel fortunate that my kids — two of my kids are from here. I have connected with this University the way that an overwhelming majority of the people in this Commonwealth connect with the University of Kentucky. It’s just sort of woven into the fabric of people and it’s in their DNA, so I think there’s value in that. I think there’s value in a kid growing up, and one of her lifelong ambitions being to play at the University of Kentucky. I value that. I have tremendous value. So if we could get 13, 15 — I’m sorry – 15 players all from Kentucky, that would be my preference. That has not been possible over the 11 years, two as an assistant, nine as a head coach. But anytime that a player meets the criteria of being high character and strong work ethic and a desire to play defense, and she’s from Kentucky, that’s a bonus to me. So I really value Kentuckians being involved in the program because of what this university means to so many people. I’ve always told people this: You know, there’s a little different roar in the crowd when a kid — they all cheer. Whenever we make a basket, they all cheer. But when a kid from Kentucky makes a basket, it’s just a little bit different, and I can’t explain it any other way than she’s from Kentucky and it means something. This is my school. I love this school. I think it’s the best school in the country. I’m very biased on that. I think this is the greatest place to play basketball in the world, and people that think like that, I like those people.
#13 Evelyn Akhator, F
On what it’s like to be at Kentucky …
“It’s been great. It’s been challenging compared to my last school, but it’s been really great. I am glad I am here.”
On why you like it here so much …
“The team bonding has been great. I didn’t think the transition would be this easy. Also, the system of coaching is very similar to my previous school so I find it really easy to adjust.”
On why you chose Kentucky …
“I felt the team bond. I also want to be a part of history making at Kentucky.”
#15 Linnae Harper , G
On working on improving offensive production as a team …
“In order for us to win and to get to the Final Four, we must shoot at a certain percentage to make sure we get there.”
On depth of this team …
“I think it’s great. We’re much younger than last year, but we have just as much talent. Our work ethic is high as well as our expectations. ”
On her favorite thing about being a part of this team …
“I would say our different personalities. We are all very nice and close to each other. Off the court we spend a lot of time together. I think that will help us on the court when we face adversity.”
#4 Maci Morris, G
On her transition from high school to college …
“The biggest transition coming from high school to college has been the pace of the game because Kentucky is a lot faster, defensively and offensively. It is different from high school, but I also played AAU, which is a lot of Division I talent. The tempo and the pace are amazing. That is probably the biggest transition on the court, but off the court the biggest transition is keeping up with classes and basketball.”
On being from Kentucky and now getting to play for the Wildcats …
“It’s been a great experience. Being from Kentucky it has always been a dream of mine to be Miss. Basketball, as well as being able to play at UK. I’m just blessed.”
On having a “pinch yourself” moment since starting at Kentucky …
“I think I had that during Big Blue Madness when I was about to go on stage. When they were about to announce me my heart was beating so fast.”
On if she is surprised about Coach Mitchell’s demands defensively …
“No I am not surprised at all because when he came to my house for a home visit he sat me down and told me what he was expecting. I knew this program well and I knew that defense was something they focus on.”
#2 Ivana Jakubcova, C
On how she has improved from last year …
“I feel like I have gotten a lot better. Even though I got injured last year, just to watch what kind of a team Coach Mitchell wants us to be, and what kind of defense he wants us to play has helped me tremendously.”
On if her injury helped her shooting …
“Yes I believe that my injury helped me a lot. I was doing a lot of form-shooting every day and focusing on that. I couldn’t even compare my shot from last year to now. I feel a lot more comfortable shooting.”
On her natural position on the floor …
“I am whatever this team needs me to be. If they need me to be a five, I’ll be a five. I love working on my overall game, I try to work on everything to help out my team.”
#1 Batouly Camara, F
On the hardest transition from high school to college…
“I would say the hardest transition for me has been time management and being very responsible with my time, whether it’s free time or time in class, and being productive with every second. In addition to that, being in practice and definitely raising a different level of intensity that isn’t high school. That’s been the most demanding for me.
On the level of intensity at UK …
“It’s definitely higher than I could have prepared for or imagined. But, being in a program where the girls are very supportive and we have great, intense coaches, it has been tremendous for me and definitely a growing experience. Practices are just intense and everything is defensive minded.”
On being a defensive-minded player …
“I think I’ve always been a defensive minded player. I get very excited when you make a great defensive play and it turns to a great offensive play and I think that is what we have had an extreme focus on this season.”
On the start of freshman season …
“As a freshman, I am extremely excited for where the program is headed. We’ve been in the gym practicing, working extremely hard as a team and learning a lot of fundamentals from the other freshman.”
#35 Alexis Jennings, F
On Coach Mitchell’s message for improving shooting percentage …
“He thinks that in order for us to be successful we have to work together. We have a couple of new players and a couple of old players from last year’s team. In order for us to be successful we have to create a good tempo and have good team chemistry in order to get that 45 percent.”
On the impact of new additions to the front line …
“I think the new additions came in working very hard and they create a great post presence for us. I think as long as they keep working together with the help of our position coach, Coach Adeniyi Amadou, we’ll be one of the top post groups this year.”
#3 Janee Thompson, PG
On any limitations from her injury at this point …
“I just think it’s the workload, the volume. I do as much as I can and I go as hard as I can when I’m able to. When I start to feel a little something I back off a little bit. But, I feel like I’m able to do more and more every day, which is great for me. I’m just glad to be back out there with my teammates.”
On shooting improvement this season …
“We are trying to improve our shooting as a team. That is something that we’re focused on this year and I think the way we can do that is focusing on our shot selection and working hard in practice. I think we have a really hardworking group. They get in the gym all the time and I think that will help us improve our shooting percentage this year.”
On how she stayed motivated during recovery from injury …
“It was really just my teammates, the support of my family and the support of the fans. It was just a blessing to see how much they wanted me to get back, and all the support and love that poured in after my injury was great. That was pretty much my motivation. I wanted to get back out there with my teammates and I wanted to get back on the court for all the people who supported me during that rough time.”
On being ready for the season …
“I wish it was today. I’m just so excited to get back on that court, play in front of our fans and get out there with my teammates. I can’t wait.”
On addition of Evelyn Akhator …
“Evelyn adds a little bit of everything. She’s a great leader. She leads through her actions. She’s hardworking. She’s one of the most athletic females I’ve ever seen and she’s a great addition to our team.”
On potential of this year’s team …
“I think we can be really good. We’ll be really deep this year. We’ve got a lot of newcomers and they’ve been working extremely hard. I think we have a chance to be special.”