‘Blank Canvas’: Cats Ready to Paint Their Own Picture
Matthew Mitchell comes closest to being an artist when he performs with the Go Big Blue Band or dances at Big Blue Madness.
Nonetheless, Mitchell is trying to paint a masterpiece with the 2017-18 Kentucky women’s basketball team.
“I try to look at it sort of like a blank canvas, and how beautiful can we make this picture,” Mitchell said. “That’s just sort of how I’m wired.”
That’s how he approaches every season, but the canvas is perhaps even blanker this year. He will field a team with six players who have not yet played a game in a Kentucky uniform and notably does not include Makayla Epps or Evelyn Akhator.
Mitchell might not yet know what his team is going look like come March, or even come Big Blue Madness on Friday or UK’s season opener on Nov. 10 vs. Sacramento State, but he does know how the Cats have handled their work so far. Early returns on that front are good.
“They have really got off to a good start with a summer full of hard work and a lot of improvement over the summer with our conditioning and our strength and had a really, really tough September where we improved our early morning workouts during the month of September,” Mitchell said. “They have just been a group that has embraced hard work.
“We have had overall really good attitudes, so it is going to be an interesting journey and a lot of statistical things we will have to replace with the loss of Makayla (Epps) and Evelyn (Akhator) but that is really evident to everyone.”
UK might lack the star power of the two players who went on to the WNBA, but a talented roster is still in place.
“I believe the identity will be hustle, quickness, speed, athleticism, try to force the other team to be uncomfortable and make some mistakes,” Mitchell said. “I think that will be necessary with some inexperience, especially early on, I think we will make our fair share of mistakes. Hopefully we can settle that in and be a clean, executing well, taking care of the ball team that tries to disrupt the other team.”
Though UK will have to rely on a number of newcomers, the Cats are not without experience. Alyssa Rice, Makenzie Cann and Jessica Hardin are the team’s seniors, but the go-to players figure to be juniors Taylor Murray and Maci Morris. They are UK’s leading returners in points, assists and minutes and are soon to assume more of a featured role than they ever have, both in terms of production and leadership.
“I tell everybody I’m so excited for this season because we just have so much versatility on this team and just watching us in practice and being able to play with these girls, it’s really exciting,” Morris said. “There’s just so much that each of us can contribute. We all play hard. Our chemistry’s really good on the court, so I’m really excited.”
Murray will have the keys to the car as the team’s point guard. She believes there’s plenty of gas in UK’s tank.
“We’re very athletic,” Murray said. “We’re very skilled. We have a lot of different players who can do more than one thing and we stretch the floor really well and we can run.”
If that sounds like UK might be making a return to the more fast-paced, pressing style of some of Mitchell’s teams from past years, that’s no accident. He’s hoping the Cats can develop into exactly that kind of team.
“If I could for a moment, go back to 2009-10 and talk about that team that became a pressing team,” Mitchell said. “It is easy to look back and say they pressed all the time, but that really evolved that year and really didn’t become a full-court pressing team until the middle of December.
“So you cannot skip steps or take any shortcuts, but sitting here today I am hopeful that we will be able to do that and where we were sort of disguising defenses a little bit last year to try to conserve a little bit because we were six to eight deep. We are a little different type of a team where I think we can turn it loose a little bit more and we are certainly going to explore that.”
There might be lots of unknowns for UK, but one thing that’s certain is that the Cats have plenty of potential. So, how do they reach it?
“I think just being aggressive,” Morris said. “We gotta come out and show people that we mean business. Just because two of our best players left doesn’t mean we’re out of the running for the championship in the SEC or the national championship. I think we have as good a chance as anybody.”
That’s exactly the way Mitchell wants his team thinking.
“Oh, we’re gonna go for it,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to go for the SEC title and a SEC Tournament title and a Final Four and a national championship. I mean, that’s we’re going to aspire to and we have no idea what our ceiling is. So, why put any limits on that?”