Something that is occasionally lost in all the hoopla surrounding John Calipari Land is that UK has another top-10 basketball program on campus. UK Hoops is currently ranked #8 in the nation and is coming off a dominating win over Samford (that sounds mighty familiar).
What also sounds familiar is a story of a charismatic coach who “gets it” leading a Kentucky basketball program to success. Although the Lady Cats’ Matthew Mitchell may not match Calipari’s star power just yet, it’s also true that Calipari has had a whole extra decade of experience (he’s 52, as opposed to Mitchell’s 41).
So what exactly makes me say these guys are pretty similar?
While i’m not saying that Mitchell’s recruiting classes in the past couple of years match up to a Cousins/Wall/Bledsoe or Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist/Teague kind of class, there still has been some serious success in women’s basketball recruiting recently. Whether it’s been stealing transfers (Keyla Snowden) or collecting top-notch high school players (Adia Mathies), Mitchell has been building quite the talent pool here at UK. This year’s team is considered by many to be perhaps the deepest team in recent memory, with legitimate talent on the roster from top to bottom. More talent only breeds more potential for success, and Mitchell has increased both recently.
More buzz/fan excitement
Although UK fans have always been relatively supportive of the women’s team (Kentucky has eight straight seasons of being in the top 25 nationally for average attendance in women’s basketball), there is just a certain buzz that has been created in the past couple of years. That attendance ranking jumped from 23rd nationally after the 2007-08 season to 11th after 2010-11. Last year, the team also set a school record for number of times it was shown on TV with 16 regular season appearances. I can’t say that this is all Matthew Mitchell, but I will give him some credit – he has worked tirelessly to promote his team in every way possible. From beginning a preseason “Fan Day” during his first year as head coach to showing up at the men’s games to promote a particularly exciting upcoming match-up for his team, Mitchell has been everywhere, and it shows. While he hasn’t been dragging in Drake or Mike Tomlin to his games (a la Calipari), I still think that people are starting to take much more notice of the women’s team than they were before he arrived.
One of the biggest complaints on the men’s side of the spectrum, especially during Tubby’s years here, was that UK didn’t play a brand of basketball that was “exciting” enough for the average Kentucky fan – a complaint that quickly disappeared once Calipari took hold of the reins. Although this was never necessarily a criticism of the women’s team, excitement is now certainly a crowning jewel of this year’s group. If you can watch a game in which UK Hoops forced 49 (FORTY-nine…Four. Nine.) turnovers and not be excited about that, I’d like to know if you have a heartbeat. Mitchell’s recent teams, especially this year’s, have been in-your-face kind of defenders, with quick guards that are just downright fun to watch. Even though there are differences between the men’s and women’s game, I couldn’t even imagine what kind of exhilaration there would be if a men’s team ever forced that many turnovers in one game.
With Calipari comes a factor that can’t exactly be pinpointed or labeled – the subtle jabs at Pitino, the pizza delivery to Memorial Coliseum campers, the friendship with LeBron (love him or hate him). That X-factor is what makes him such a great fit at the University of Kentucky. With Mitchell comes an X-factor that is quite different, yet equally as efficient. We all saw the Thriller routine at Big Blue Madness this year and we see how much fun Mitchell’s team has around him. With women’s basketball at UK, there is less to “get” than with the men’s program – those are just the facts. But Matthew Mitchell has been very successful with striking a balance between showing his personality and putting focus on his team as a whole. Calipari has done much the same thing on the men’s side.
So what does the BBN think about this comparison? I definitely know that Mitchell isn’t collecting the kind of recruits that Calipari does, and the women’s team hasn’t had as much historical success as the men, so it could be a bit of a stretch. But with what Mitchell has done in the last few years, can we say that he compares favorably with our favorite men’s coach?