Vaught's Views: UK women's coach Mitchell says being picked to win SEC 'means nothing'
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell talks with Brittany Henderson during the women's basketball team's media day Tuesday. (Victoria Graff / October 24, 2012)
First, the program.
“For the program it's a wonderful thing, and it just is some tangible proof that the team last year was good, and they did well, and a lot of preseason awards were passed out on what last year's team did. So we should congratulate last year's team for helping us be the preseason pick. It also makes you appreciative of where we have come from,” Mitchell said Tuesday at the team’s media day.
“Four years ago we were picked 11th, so it at least gives you some idea that progress is being made for the program. I'm confident that our fans are excited about that and take pride that we are now considered to be a good program. Those things are really, really positive, and we are appreciative of that.”
Now comes the “but” referring to this year’s team.
“It literally means nothing. It really means absolutely nothing for this year's team because I think back when we were picked 11th, we didn't pay attention to that at all, and we saw what that team did (finished second in the SEC),” Mitchell said. “So if it didn't mean anything to that team it can't start meaning something now.
“We do have a good team. Well, let me say this. We do have good players and we have the capability of becoming a good team, but there is nothing automatic about that. Really, the only thing automatic, when you think about it, is we all in this room are going to die at some point, but other than that ...”
What? Was that a playful jab at me since I asked the question and was probably the oldest media member at the press conference?
“Well, you can't look at that computer, Larry, and make a story appear,” Mitchell said. “It's not automatic at all. You got to do something. Outside of going 6 feet under, we got to do something with this team. We're excited about the possibility of finishing the season first. That will be really what's important.”
Dynamic coach with a talented team at Kentucky. Sound familiar? But it’s not John Calipari, even though he is both, too. No, Mitchell has worked miracles with the UK women’s basketball program, which is now openly talking about reaching the Final Four after losing in the Elite Eight last year.
And for the football enthusiasts who insist UK should be able to compete for a SEC championship, his program shows it can be done, because it has climbed from the SEC cellar to that point now.
“They're a potential Final Four team. That's easier for us to say than it is to happen. But if you look at our roster and if everybody were to come together and play really hard and you get some breaks, I think they are — they have that potential,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, like Calipari, doesn’t shy away from talking to his team about Final Four aspirations.
“We don't huddle up every day and say we're trying to get to the Final Four, but we have tried to make them aware that we believe that they're championship-caliber, that we believe they can be that kind of team,” Mitchell said. “Without going through everything that it takes to get there, we think it's a possibility.
“I do think you need to set goals and have direction, so we would love to get to New Orleans (for the Final Four). We will try to remind them how special they can be. If they will just really focus on working and being their best, they will give themselves a chance, I can promise you that. If they really, really come together, they will give themselves a chance to be there at the end.”
Again, doesn’t that sound like Calipari touting his team and at the same time stressing the value of team chemistry and hard work. Remember, Mitchell now has five McDonald’s All-Americans on his team. A few years ago that seemed as far fetched as having the Kentucky football team sign 10 five-star players in one recruiting class. But the UK women have won so much under Mitchell that the nation’s best players now want to play for him — and more will be on the way next year.
Why not? He’s charismatic — didn’t you see his Big Blue Madness dance again this year? — and knows how to entertain. He’s also not overwhelmed by the shadow of Calipari or the men’s team.
Mitchell was asked Tuesday about his relationship with Calipari. He gave a great answer.
“I think my relationship with Cal has helped him tremendously. He won the national championship last year, and I've been working with him extensively on, really, every phase of the game and mainly on his public relations skills,” he said with a straight face. “The guy has had trouble in that area, so I feel good that I've been able to bring him along to where there is interest in that program now, and maybe I can devote more time to our team and see if we can get to a Final Four.”
Finally, Mitchell laughed and thanked media members for laughing, too. Then he turned serious.
“There are a few things I would like to say about John. One is his wisdom and experience helps me tremendously, and I guess I need to start with just his willingness to help me, and his availability and his encouragement,” he said. “Those are all functions of him making himself available to me, and from what I can tell anybody on campus that needs his help, he will do that. That says something about the kind of person he is.
“In particular with our relationship, it is so helpful to be able to walk across the hall as a young coach and go to somebody with experience who has done something that we're attempting to do, take a program that didn't have a lot of tradition and people didn't expect those things and trying to move into that spot where we are now where people do expect good things from us. His wisdom and his willingness to share that is powerful, and then he's just done some things back when we were really trying to get it going.”
Mitchell noted how Calipari asked ESPN College GameDay to put him and the women’s team on last year to give the program more exposure. “Just his support is meaningful to me, and I appreciate him greatly, and I'm confident he appreciates me, too, and all the good work I've done for him. He's been a good guy,” Mitchell said.
However, as good as Calipari has been following Billy Gillispie, Mitchell may have actually done an even better job the last three years taking the Kentucky women’s program to elite status and making Final Four talk seem realistic rather than a fantasy.