The big ‘what if?’ that hangs over the Matthew Mitchell coaching tenure at UK

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Now that Matthew Mitchell has relinquished the job as Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball coach, he does not lay awake nights tormented by the fact he never led UK to the Final Four.

“I certainly wanted to win it all,” the winningest coach in Kentucky history (303-133 from 2007 through 2020) says. “But I am not awake at night thinking, ‘We didn’t achieve much because we never went to a Final Four and didn’t win a national championship.’”

The full magnitude of Mitchell’s impact on the Kentucky women’s basketball program is best told through the numbers.

In its women’s hoops history, the University of Kentucky has won 22 NCAA Tournament games.

Teams coached by Mitchell produced 17 of those victories.

All time, Kentucky has 99 wins over teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

Teams coached by Mitchell produced 54 of those victories.

From 2010 through 2016 — when Mitchell’s program was at its zenith — Kentucky advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight three times and to the Sweet 16 five times.

“No Final Four, but I still think it was a good run,” Mitchell says.

Former Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell at home this week with his wife, Jenna, and two daughters, Presley and Saylor. Mitchell, 50, says working at home during the coronavirus pandemic caused a family-oriented change in his priorities which led to his surprise resignation as UK head coach before the 2020-21 season.
Former Kentucky women’s basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell at home this week with his wife, Jenna, and two daughters, Presley and Saylor. Mitchell, 50, says working at home during the coronavirus pandemic caused a family-oriented change in his priorities which led to his surprise resignation as UK head coach before the 2020-21 season.

Yet now that Mitchell, 50, has hung up his coaching whistle, there is an interesting retrospective question that hangs over his UK tenure:

To what extent did an NCAA-mandated change in how basketball games were officiated before the 2013-14 season work against Kentucky breaking through to its first Final Four?

‘40 Minutes of Dread’

Two years into Mitchell’s run as head coach, Kentucky stood 33-32. There was a distinct lack of buzz around the UK program — reflected when SEC coaches picked the Cats to finish next-to-last in the conference in 2009-10.

If that were not enough anxiety for Mitchell, Kentucky lost to Ohio University in a closed-door, preseason scrimmage prior to that ‘09-10 campaign.

“Desperation or feeling cornered frees you up to make some radical decisions,” Mitchell said last week. “We were just trying to survive.”

Former Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell says he is not tormented by the fact UK did not make a Final Four during his successful, 13-year run as Cats head man. “I certainly wanted to win it all. But I am not awake at night thinking, ‘We didn’t achieve much because we never went to a Final Four and didn’t win a national championship,’” he says.
Former Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell says he is not tormented by the fact UK did not make a Final Four during his successful, 13-year run as Cats head man. “I certainly wanted to win it all. But I am not awake at night thinking, ‘We didn’t achieve much because we never went to a Final Four and didn’t win a national championship,’” he says.

Fearing that his hold on the Kentucky job was slipping away, Mitchell began conferring with coaching friends, including current Texas coach Vic Schaefer and ex-Mississippi coach Renee Ladner, about what he could do to get his program going.

The advice that came back was that the quickest way to significant improvement was through pressure defense. So with a roster heavy on quick guards and undersized but athletic forwards, Mitchell began to emphasize defensive pressure drills in practice.

“We still did not have any grand scheme,” Mitchell says. “What happened came about very, very organically.”

Early in that pivotal 2009-10 season, UK was struggling to stop a high ball-screen action in a game vs. Butler. Out of frustration, Mitchell ordered his team to start trapping it.

“Butler turned it over two or three times and we made a big run to win,” Mitchell says. “We were like, ‘What do we have here?’”

Soon, UK’s trapping, half-court man-to-man defense morphed into a ferocious full-court press. Kentucky ended up forcing just under 23 turnovers a game that season.

Fueled by its relentless full-court defensive trap, Mitchell’s third team — led by a breakout star in junior Victoria Dunlap and a freshman phenom in A’dia Mathies — went 28-8 and finished second in the SEC in both the regular season and tournament.

Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap waved to the crowd along with head coach Matthew Mitchell after UK beat Arkansas 55-54 on its 2011 Senior Night. The biggest thing that turned around Wildcats women’s hoops was “Victoria Dunlap’s ability to shine” in the up-tempo system Kentucky adopted in 2009-10, Mitchell says.
Kentucky star Victoria Dunlap waved to the crowd along with head coach Matthew Mitchell after UK beat Arkansas 55-54 on its 2011 Senior Night. The biggest thing that turned around Wildcats women’s hoops was “Victoria Dunlap’s ability to shine” in the up-tempo system Kentucky adopted in 2009-10, Mitchell says.

In the 2010 NCAA Tournament, the Cats bounced No. 1 seed Nebraska in the round of 16 and made UK’s first Elite Eight in 28 years.

It seemed Kentucky had arrived on a playing style that gave it a chance to overcome the existing women’s hoops hierarchy.

“The biggest challenge for us at that time, we just couldn’t beat Tennessee on players (in recruiting). We couldn’t beat Georgia on players,” Mitchell says. “We just couldn’t recruit the way they were recruiting and have any success.

“We were like, ‘What can we do with the kind of players we can get?’ I know we listed some kids taller, but we really didn’t have anybody playing that was over 6 feet tall. But we’d found a way to make that work for us.”

Mitchell’s program rode its newly frenetic style to two more Elite Eights in 2012 and 2013. The 2011-12 Cats forced an astounding 26.8 turnovers a contest, while the 2012-13 team generated an average of 23.7 opponent miscues.

The “Forty Minutes of Dread” — as UK’s full-court pressing was dubbed — became the Cats’ signature.

Ending ‘the Dread’

Before the 2013-14 season, the NCAA enacted an officiating initiative designed to enhance the “freedom of movement” for players during games.

That plan became an existential crisis for UK women’s basketball because the way the games were subsequently officiated shut down Kentucky’s pressing ways.

“The way the rules were (being enforced), if you touched (an opponent) a couple of times, even if it really had no impact on the basketball play at all, that was a foul,” Mitchell says.

That made it hard to run the kind of full-court, run-and-jump press for which Kentucky had become known.

It’s probably not a coincidence that UK — while still good — has not returned to an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight since the “freedom of movement” initiative was enacted.

“I always thought one way to level the playing field was tenacious, tenacious defense,” Mitchell says. “I just thought (the change in officiating emphasis) took away the ability for a program that, maybe, didn’t have as much talent (as the historically elite programs) but had some real tough athletes who were tough-minded (to) succeed.”

With A’dia Mathies on the Kentucky roster (2009-13), the Wildcats went 10-4 in NCAA Tournament games and reached three Elite Eights. Since Mathies graduated, UK is 8-6 in the NCAA tourney and has not made it back to the round of eight. “One of the most incredible things that ever happened for Kentucky women’s basketball was A’dia Mathies coming to Kentucky,” ex-UK coach Matthew Mitchell says.
With A’dia Mathies on the Kentucky roster (2009-13), the Wildcats went 10-4 in NCAA Tournament games and reached three Elite Eights. Since Mathies graduated, UK is 8-6 in the NCAA tourney and has not made it back to the round of eight. “One of the most incredible things that ever happened for Kentucky women’s basketball was A’dia Mathies coming to Kentucky,” ex-UK coach Matthew Mitchell says.

The pivotal hypothetical question of the Mitchell era: What if the “freedom of movement” initiative had not interrupted Kentucky’s ability to press opponents into oblivion?

“We were definitely emerging and on the rise,” Mitchell says. “Then it was just such a radical change forced on us from how we defended.”

Left UK a better program

Once Kentucky launched its ascension under Mitchell in 2009-10, it fleetingly seemed that UK had a chance to become the new sheriff in SEC women’s basketball.

In part because of Pat Summitt’s tragic health issues, the long-running Tennessee dynasty looked vulnerable.

Mitchell appeared to have UK best positioned to fill that void.

In retrospect, a variety of factors prevented the Cats from becoming the SEC’s No. 1 program.

One was the change in officiating emphasis that hamstrung Kentucky’s full-court press.

Another was a program-destabilizing player exodus in 2016 that saw seven players with remaining eligibility leave UK for various reasons and five committed recruits subsequently renege.

The biggest of all was the fact that A’ja Wilson was born in South Carolina and not Kentucky. Wilson became the pivotal player that allowed Dawn Staley and South Carolina to replace Tennessee as the SEC’s titan.

Still, if the ultimate measure of a coach is whether they leave a program in better shape than when they started, there is no question that the program Mitchell handed off to successor Kyra Elzy is light years ahead of the one he inherited.

Now former Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell presented a basketball to current UK star Rhyne Howard to commemorate her joining the 1,000 career points club during the 2019-20 season. Howard is one of three players Mitchell coached at UK who won SEC Player of the Year honors.
Now former Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell presented a basketball to current UK star Rhyne Howard to commemorate her joining the 1,000 career points club during the 2019-20 season. Howard is one of three players Mitchell coached at UK who won SEC Player of the Year honors.

Of the 16 teams UK has had qualify for the NCAA Tournament, Mitchell was the head coach of nine.

Of the top eight scorers in Kentucky women’s basketball history, six played for Mitchell.

Of the three UK players ever to win SEC Player of the Year honors — Dunlap, Mathies and Rhyne Howard — all played at least two seasons for Mitchell.

“A whole lot of people, players, coaches and support staff included, pulled together and made this happen,” Mitchell says. “I feel really good about what we did at Kentucky.”

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