Matthew Mitchell and players talk about UK women's basketball in 2017-18

Warren Taylor, Staff Writer
Cats Illustrated

Cats Illustrated's Warren Taylor was at the Kentucky women's basketball team's media day on Tuesday.

Read everything head coach Matthew Mitchell said, and also watch and listen as Maci Morris, KeKe McKinney, Kameron Roach, Alyssa Rice, Makenzie Cann and Taylor Murray talk about the 2017-18 season ahead.

All quotes below are from Mitchell.

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Opening Statement

“Thank you, everyone for coming today and we are looking forward to what will be a really exciting journey for this group of Wildcats. 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. 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. But we have more depth this year and I think we have a chance to be a really athletic team. So as long as we keep our attitude and our effort right, we will have a chance to have a great season and that is what we are planning on and working towards every day.”

On how much of an adjustment it is to not see Makayla or Evelyn out on the floor everyday

“Well, you know, that has sort of been the rhythm of this job and we have had a lot of good players leave and you don’t ever want to see them leave because you get attached to them and love them so much as members of your family. Evelyn and Makayla were like that. I think I miss the personal part of it. Makayla just came to the office, she is in class here and finishing up her degree and Evelyn is in Russia. So I was on FaceTime with Evelyn a couple days ago and then I saw Makayla today and you miss those relationships. Those were two terrific young people. The basketball part, I don’t know if I have just accepted it as a coach, but it is just the rhythm of it. I have never been one to be too upset about that part of it. It is just the rhythm of life. They come here to try to get better as people and players and you try to pour in as many good things as you can as a coach and then it is on to the next year as a team and as a coach. The thing that we have really tried to embrace here over the years and I think we have done a good job of is this is the only opportunity that we have for the Wildcats. I haven’t thought a lot about last year other than to gain any wisdom that would be helpful for this edition and we don’t focus much on the future. I told them this morning, this is the only chance they are guaranteed and the only chance they have, so if you look at it that way pour everything into this year. When I look at it, I look at it a little bit differently. How can this team be successful? When I think about Makayla and Evelyn, I think about how can I support them and help them in their lives where they are right now. I don’t think a lot about trying to replace them individually. The kind of team that we have, a freshman is not going to step in and replace Makayla Epps. A freshman isn’t going to step in and replace Evelyn Akhator. You hope your seniors are better, your juniors are better, your sophomores are better and then your freshmen get better throughout time. You do it as a team and you do it as a group. That is sort of where my mindset is on that.”

On the upperclassmen stepping up this year

“Well, that starts at the end of last season. You evaluate what happened last season and you talk to them about the improvements that have to be made in the offseason. Everybody has an opportunity and this team has done a good job so far of facing that opportunity from a work standpoint. So there is a level of work you have to put in and time you have to spend on what needs to happen for you to improve as an individual. So they go home in May with a plan and come back here in June and we try to continue to work on improvement during the summer and I have seen a lot of growth out of Alyssa Rice, who I thought really started to come into her own at the end of last season. There is no question that as a fourth-year senior, we are looking to her to give us some great production statistically and also from a leadership standpoint and she does a good job of that. She is an example of the upperclassmen, and you can go down the line and talk about all of them, that needed to improve and I think that they have. It will always be about that and it will always be about how can we blend this group of players into a really true team. We try to do that each and every year and we will try to do that this year.”

On Taylor Murray

“Yeah, it sort of goes right along to what we were talking about. You want to see the players come here as a freshman and continue to improve. What a fantastic improvement we saw from the first of her sophomore year to the end and that has carried on. She is a really conscientious person. She really cares about everybody around. Rarely do you go by her and she doesn’t say, ‘How are you doing?’ is the first thing out of her mouth, whether it be a coach or support staff or one of her teammates. She really cares about people and cares about her improvement and what her roles needs to be on the team. So when you are conscientious and care about people and are a hard worker and then have some talents that the good lord gave you, that is a recipe for a good player. I just think that we have one of the great weapons in the country to be an up-tempo, fast-paced team when you have arguably – I haven’t put a stopwatch on everybody in the country – but she is clearly elite-level speed and what a weapon we have there. We all have to work as hard as we can so we can take advantage of what Taylor really brings to the table. Her speed and quickness on the court – offensively and defensively – is a weapon we need to take advantage of. She has had a great summer and we will look for another year of progression. There is no doubt that there are things in her game that she can get better doing. It will be an exciting junior year for Taylor.”

On the identity of this team

“So, really we are adding six people that you all and I have never seen play for Kentucky. I think those six players really inject some depth and athleticism and some size. We don’t really have any 6-5, 6-6 players, but we really added four players that are 6-foot plus and have great length. All of them are athletic and all of them have different gifts and then our two guards are explosive and can do things. What we are going to try to do and attempting right now and attempted to build a base this summer is tempo and pace and if you look over the 10 previous years it has been more up-tempo than not and that is what we believe will be the best way for this team to play. Now, clearly, there have been times when I have wanted to do certain things and the team was better at others and I would always make the adjustment to benefit the team. I believe the identity will be hustle, quickness, speed, athleticism, try to force the other team to be uncomfortable and make some mistakes. 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 settled that in and be a clean, executing well, taking care of the ball team that tries to disrupt the other team. What we have really tried to talk about so far and give them confidence in is that speed and quickness and athleticism gives them the ability to be a really tough team to go against. You have to go and earn that and you cannot talk about it. You have to really work hard to be that kind of team. So far, I have enjoyed going to practice because they have a tremendous capacity to work. And that is usually a good recipe for us.”

On if that means Kentucky will try to press more this year

“We are trying. That is another one of those easier things to talk about up here on media day than done. But we absolutely have the ingredients and the talents and the gifts to be a pressing team. However long you decide to hang around practice today, there is a press segment on the plan today and it is a really, really hard thing to do. If I could for a moment, go back to 2009-10 and talk about that team that became a pressing team. 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.”

On the health of the team

“Yes, we have looked really strong and healthy. Very few setbacks and all of them minor. Some of the young kids when you get that kind of load and they don’t know how to handle that, those are muscle aches and pains and things like that. But we had a good healthy summer and nothing really to report on that. Amanda Paschal came to us not at 100 percent, but has progressed through practice and is in 5 on 5 and we try to be intelligent with how we look at those things and help players that may need a little rest here and there. But really nothing right now, which is good for us. Everybody is pretty much full speed and so far so good.”

On team chemistry

“Yeah, we sort of married two groups. A group that was here and was galvanized through the experiences of last year and high-character people and selfless people. And thank goodness through a lot of hard work from our assistant coaches and support staff we were able to recruit and attract those kind of players into that. It has been a really smooth transition from the standpoint that people are sort of like minded. Now, it is never easy to get 14 people on the same page, so I don’t tell you that you don’t have some challenges, but it makes everything less challenging when people are high character and hardworking and sort of predisposed to a positive attitude. The amount of time I have had to spend on people being disgruntled or showing up in a bad mood or whatever has been low on this team. Not perfect, not flawless, but overall show up every day. We had some fun together this summer and went out and did some things off the court and they are a fun group to be around with a lot of laughs and a lot of energy. A bunch of college kids that are having a good time and enjoy being around each other. As of right now, the season gets very long and challenging and we will be in close quarters and there will be times of challenge and conflict in any family. So we will have to be prepared to meet those challenges, but I really, really enjoy being with them and around them and we are off to a good start in that department.”

On whether this team is gelling quicker than teams in the past

“Again, it’s so easy to look back on a team that went to the Elite Eight and just go, ‘Well, that was just such a great team and we were all together.’ One of the gifts maybe that I have, I kind of forget the bad times and hold onto the good times, so I’m not the best person to ask that. They’re doing a great job. This team’s doing a great job of coming together and they seem to genuinely like each other.”

On Makenzie Cann returning to a more natural position this season and if that will help her growth

“I do, and I think it’ll help her comfort level, I think it’ll help her confidence level. She did an unbelievable service to the team last year moving to the power forward and didn’t complain, but I think she always in the back of her mind was concerned about her effectiveness there. So she’s another really conscientious player who wants to do well and wants to do well for the team and I think welcomes the move back to a more natural position but is ready at a moment’s notice. So, let’s say somebody has been ill or somebody turned an ankle or something and wasn’t ready to go, always willing to get back in there and use her experience at the four to help us out. That versatility will be valuable on the team and sometimes it helps you to go four guards in different situations. Great, great element we can add to this team with her experience at four last year. So, she’s looking good.”

On having a lot of versatile players

“I wish I had coined that phrase, ‘position(less) basketball.’ But it’s sort of what we’ve kind of built the program on over the years. You know, Kastine Evans, you know, in 2010-11, played the four and she was about 5-8. And so, we’ve thrived off of versatility. If you look at our three freshmen, that you would kind of look at as our taller players with some height that we needed, all three of those have some versatility to their game. Dorie Harrison can run like the wind. I mean, we were running sprints this morning and you could visibly see her jogging and she made the time on the sprint. I had to put them back on the line, I’m going to have to change her sprint time, because her flying down the floor, she can run as fast as a lot of people on the team jogging. She can fly, but also has a real sturdy body, strong, but can do some things, is not just a one-dimensional player, can really run. Tatyana Wyatt is so versatile, can shoot the three and put it on the floor some, but also can go rip down tough rebounds and play physical. Keke McKinney is kind of sliding over. She’s kind of always been a stretch four, probably all of her career, but has the versatility to slide over to the three and help us out. So we’ve brought in some versatility and some athleticism and when you have some athletic bigs, they give you some options to mix some things up defensively. But the downside or the challenge there, that’s the tougher transition between guard and post. The post is definitely tougher, but I like our chances with them because they embrace the work. If we ever had any type of difficulty as far as just a freshman falling into a negative mindset, they snap out of it quickly. They take coaching, they respond, they take responsibility, move on, come back the next day better. So, those kids can help us a lot, but I do feel like we have some players that can move around and we can show you some different looks.”

On the new guards

“The two guards, Kameron Roach and Amanda Paschal, again, you think about last year, both Taylor (Murray) and Makayla (Epps), both pure point guards if they want to be, played very well with each other in that same mold. I think both of them can run the point, both of them can play with another point guard. So quick, Kameron’s really explosive, fast, was used to scoring in high school, so has a lot of confidence in that area. Amanda, her freshman year, going down the stretch in the national tournament when her team eventually won a national championship, her coach will tell you, they put the ball in her hands. She really became a reliable scorer, so she’s got a lot of game to her. All of them trying to get up to speed defensively, but I’m not concerned because they’re really embracing the D. It’s not like they’re not hustling on the defensive end, it’s just hard. It’s hard to get it going, and then the guards, you’re putting some other decision-making things in their mind offensively. I think they’re going to be really good players for us. The other newcomer that I didn’t mention, who was with us last year, was Ogechi Anyagaligbo. She has a lot of gifts too. She’s really rugged, tough, really physical around the basket and can make a major contribution for us this year. So, excited about our newcomers.”

On how Maci Morris has developed as a player and leader

“Well I tell you, Maci’s a heck of an athlete, just a tremendous athlete. Great balance, great speed, great first step. I mean, if you look at her highlights from last year and she’s in the open court, you know, it’s impressive. She really developed her game, not just pure ball handling, but using those to score, blow by people in the open court, just make some real athletic plays. Stronger, more developed going into her junior year. Has made a huge jump from freshman to junior year and that’s a great sign, but incredible competitor, wants to win, loves Kentucky, loves her teammates, just somebody you’re glad is on your team. Shooting the ball great, moving better defensively than she ever has. So, as far as the work and the preparation she’s put in she’s set up to have a terrific junior year. You’ve got to go out and do it. Basketball’s a hard sport. I’m sure all of them are. The thing about basketball, especially the way we’re trying to play, it’s just so dynamic. You can’t stop and kind of analyze the play, huddle up, you’ve got to go. All these things that I’m talking about, they are what I believe are possibilities but I just continue to tell our team and everybody, you have to go earn the right to be called a team. You’re really doing that together for each other, you’re in the right place at the right time. You’re doing things that are necessary to win. There’s a lot to it, a lot of things that we’ve got to put together. So, Maci has done a very good job to give herself an opportunity to have a great junior year, but she’ll have to go out and do it.”

On his biggest concern going into the season

“What it is just about every year is can we find a way to blend 14 different people into a team? It’s like I tell them all the time, there’s no question when you walk in that room and you look at them, you know that there’s enough in the room provided one thing: that they are going to bring it with the right effort and the right attitude every day and they’re going to work their head off to be the best. So, we’re not going to walk on the court and blow anybody away just because we show up and are dressed in Kentucky uniform. Anybody that’s at our level and has the aspirations that we have, we’re not going to just walk in and out talent people, but if we walk in having prepared to the very best possible level, then we’re going to be a handful. So, easier to talk about on media day when everybody’s feeling optimistic about it. Harder get in there day after day, we’ll practice about 150 times this year if it’s like normal years. You have to continue to bring it each and every day. So, that’s always my concern. I try not to consume myself with a lot of negative thoughts, like what if this doesn’t happen? What if that doesn’t happen? I try to look at it sort of like a blank canvas, and how beautiful can we make this picture. That’s just sort of how I’m wired. The great thing about this sport is there are humbling moments each year that kind of bring you back down to earth, but then you start learning what do we need to work on. What can this team be good at? What can we really hang our hat on? And we’re just so early right now I can’t tell you those things, but I do think that, just going back to what I said earlier, I do think that we’ve got a great chance because they seem be able to handle a lot of work and they seem to have a good attitude.”

On what there’s ‘enough in the room’ for

“Oh, we’re gonna go for it. 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? Why say, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I’d like to do. We’d like to go 20-10 and be a No. 9 seed in the tournament. That’d be a really great year for us.’ You know, that’s just never been what we’ve done. You have to be realistic, and are any of those things that I’m telling you just going to fall out of the sky and be given to us? No, we’re going to have to go after it but that’s the pursuit. That’s exactly what I would tell any of them. That’s what I’m telling Evelyn (Akhator) and Makayla (Epps) right now. Their goal needs to be not to be on a WNBA team, they need to be in the All-Star Game in five years. Now, will they or not? We won’t know unless they try. We won’t know unless they give that kind of effort. So, there’s certain things that we understand we have to do, but that’s what we’ll be pushing for and driving for and working toward every day. And I think when you hold yourself to that standard, basically what you’re saying is that you want to be the very best that you can be. So, that’s how we approaching it.”

On whether he has to coach effort this year after saying he didn’t have to last year

“I said that last year? That was a nice thing to say about the team, wasn’t it? It doesn’t seem like it right now. But that team earned that last year. Whatever our record was, 22 and whatever. I don’t remember the record, but I’ll never forget that team. That team did earn that place in my mind that I won’t forget that team. I forget the record and maybe the scores of the games overall, but I won’t forget that team. This team has the same opportunities, so I can’t answer that ‘til the end of the season, but I will continue to say that they certainly have the capability of being that kind of team. They’ve shown that thus far.”

On how his faith fits into his role as head coach

“Well, one thing that we’re talking to our players about is being high character people. So, everybody’s got to decide what that anchor is for them, and for me it is my faith. So, I don’t know how I could explain the success that we’ve had here any other way than the strength that I’ve been given through my faith to make decisions and choices or however you want to describe that. It’s something that’s very important to me and is my anchor and where I try to begin and end every day. So, it’s an important thing for me. Hopefully when I walk in that room they have a coach that’s prepared to lead them well that day.”

On what it feels like to have a multi-team tournament named after himself

“For me, it’s a hard thing. I feel like I owe that place a lot more than they owe me. I was 30-29 there. I don’t know that I did anything remarkable there. It did a remarkable thing for me. I wish they would rename it Morehead State University Tournament or the Brian Hudson Tournament, who gave me the opportunity to coach there. That’s a debt that would be very difficult to repay there. So, I so appreciate it so much. I appreciate those folks there, Brian (Hudson) and Greg Todd, who I think is one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen or witnessed in my life. I mean, I don’t know what to say. I don’t think there ought to be a tournament like that named after me. Thank goodness I think they’re honoring somebody every year, so there certainly shouldn’t be two of them. One’s too many, but love Morehead State and what it did for Jenna and me. You know, that was our first two years of marriage there and we feel like we just got off to a great start in our career and our life. We’re so happy to be here in Lexington, but that place is really, really special and it’s an incredible honor.”

On what to expect from him at Big Blue Madness on Friday

“Well, you’ll see something. Evidently, I haven’t heard anything in the course of the offseason. I keep waiting for one offseason for someone to come up to me and say, “Gosh, I hope I never have to watch you dance at Big Blue Madness again!” But that’s not the narrative. It’s all, “Coach, what are we doing this year? What have you got this year, Coach? Can I see you dance a little bit? Could you do a little dance for us right here? We’ve got some music queued up, could you dance?” So, what it is is once a year I have to call my parents and apologize once a year. Every Saturday morning after Big Blue Madness, “Mom and dad, I did it again, embarrassed the family again.” But if I can stand on two feet between now and then, it’ll be something else Friday night and we’re going to get after it and see what this year... It’s getting hard though now trying to figure out every year something to do. So, it’ll be another horrific two and a half minutes or whatever that is while I’m out there. Somehow someway people enjoy that. I still don’t get it. But we’ll be ready to roll, don’t you worry about that.”

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