Matthew Mitchell, whose Wildcats are ranked No. 11 and off to an 11-1 start in his fourth season, has made the Kentucky women’s program relevant nationally by beating nine ranked opponents and producing all-Southeastern Conference talent.
His first team went 17-16 and finished fourth in the SEC at 8-6. Kentucky went 16-16 in his second season, including 5-9 in the SEC, but did beat Tennessee 66-56 — the Wildcats’ first win over the Lady Vols in 23 years.
Last season he was named SEC Coach of the Year for leading UK to a 28-8 record, including a school-record 11 conference wins when his team finished second despite being picked to finish 11th in preseason polls.
Mitchell took time last week to address a variety of questions about his program and his personality before his team added two more victories to get ready for a major test at Duke this week and the start of SEC play:
Question: What were you thinking when you agree to play Duke in Durham on Tuesday, and will there be a return engagement in Lexington next season?
Mitchell: “When you are trying to put together a schedule, you are trying to prepare for the conference. That is the No. 1 goal for any type pre-conference schedule. Also, as we are trying to develop our program, when opportunities like the Duke game come up you have to look at that.
“ESPN called us and asked if we would like to be on ESPN, and the choice was to be on ESPN in Durham or don’t be on ESPN at all. It was a TV game we felt would give our program great exposure, and for this particular team would give us a great test right before conference to know what we needed to work on. It is a good game for us this season, and they will return the game next year in Lexington.
“It is a great series. Another thing we want to do with our women’s program is try to tap into some of the rivalries that have been established on the men’s side. Duke has done a great job developing its women’s program, and that is what we are trying to do here. I think it is a good game for us and a good series. We will see how long it lasts.”
Question: What makes senior Victoria Dunlap so popular on and off the court that she is now a favorite of the Birmingham (Ala.) UK Alumni Club?
Mitchell: “Victoria has now been down to Birmingham twice for SEC media days, and those folks at the club have always been real nice to us and had a real nice function for us.
“Victoria has just really accomplished a lot during her time at Kentucky. Now entering the last semester of her senior year, this is her last opportunity to really solidify the marks she has made on this program. It is a huge impact she has made. She is our first All-American in 25 years. She is SEC Player of the Year.
“More than that, just to see her development from a freshman coming in who was not very developed offensively. She was a player who just got by on athleticism. For her to develop into a complete player offensively and defensively and become a great leader has been amazing to be part of that.
“You can’t get that done if you don’t work really hard, so I am proud of Victoria and what she has done for us at Kentucky.”
Question: Valerie Still, UK’s all-time leading scorer, is considered the best female player ever at Kentucky. Could Dunlap surpass her if she finishes her senior season with a bang?
Mitchell: “I think until somebody surpasses Valerie’s record, her place as No. 1 is real solid. Her statistics are just mind-blowing. It’s unbelievable to see what Valerie Still did at Kentucky. She is the best in my mind that has ever played.
“But I think there is a huge argument to be made if Victoria finishes strong that there was no one who was better than Valerie. In this day and age, Victoria is one of the best players that has come through the Southeastern Conference in a long time. I think those things are possible for her if she finishes the season strong.
“If she were able to win another SEC Player of the Year — and there are not a lot of two-time SEC Player of the Year winners — I think no matter what happens she is one of the all-time greats in Kentucky history, and if she finishes it the right way, she has a chance to be one of the top two all-time.”
Question: Do Tennessee and Connecticut both practice against men? Do you do the same thing?
Mitchell: “It is true and is one of the real benefits we have in women’s basketball. The NCAA allows us to have male practice squads, and our practice squad does a great job.
“They are a very good group of young men that have the right attitude. They are very selfless. They come in, and their focus is on helping our players get better. It takes the right kind of attitude and heart to do that job, so I have a lot of respect for the boys that help us.
“We don’t really have tryouts. Since we have been here four years, the guys on the team now understand what kind of guys will be successful. We don’t have a lot show up. All we need is a couple of new kids per year to come in.
“We have sort of established what it takes to be on our team. It’s not an easy job. You are doing a lot of drill work. It’s not always running up and down the court playing basketball. You don’t play a lot of offense.