UK head women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell held a preseason Zoom to preview the season ahead for his 2020-21 Wildcats, potentially one of his best teams in Lexington since he took over back in 2007. He has Rhyne Howard back and in National Player of the Year contention; two other returning starters in KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt; five more back from the bench, including SEC Sixth Player of the Year winner Chasity Patterson; a new freshman class that includes five-star Treasure Hunt; and incoming transfers eager to help out.
But it is Mitchell’s health that UK fans are most concerned about at this time after he underwent brain surgery this past offseason in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
He addressed his health on Thursday in his first public comments.
“It’s certainly been a challenging last few months for our basketball program with what the pandemic has sent our way. I am just so proud how everyone has worked their way through this,” Mitchell told reporters. “It’s been a tremendous effort by so many people and our players and staff and then certainly for me challenging times recovering from a surgery that I had in June and I’m just deeply appreciative and grateful to our staff and our players for carrying on in excellent fashion while I’ve been out. It’s been great to get back to work and get back around the team and been able to really get a good feel of what I think we’re capable of. Exciting, unusual certainly, nevertheless, we are excited for the 2021 season.”
Mitchell had the surgery only days after he hosted KSR with Ryan Lemond. The procedure was done to remove blood from his brain following a head injury he suffered from a fall while hiking on vacation.
“I’m not the smartest guy, so you start poking around my brain, there’s not a whole lot of damage you can do there but anytime you start drilling holes in your skull it’s a bit of a scary proposition initially. But the team at UK Healthcare just did an amazing job and surgery was very successful and my family was very supportive during my recovery so very blessed and grateful for a wonderful family.”
Once he was out of surgery and the worst part was behind him, Mitchell said he found one of the biggest challenges to be remaining patient during his slow recovery.
“That was a big challenge with the pain in your head and getting over that and bone heals very, very slowly,” he explained. “That is difficult and was difficult, and then just being patient and just knowing how fast paced basketball is. The team had been practicing and you show up at practice and it is moving really fast and just being patient and knowing that it is all not going to come back in one day.”
He thanked his staff for being supportive throughout the recovery process, although that process is still ongoing. He is working his way back to full speed “incrementally,” he said, and trying not to rush back into the non-stop grind that is being a head basketball coach at the highest level.
“What you didn’t want to do is not get to a spot and then set yourself back even further,” he explained. “So it just started out to go in when you feel you are up to doing a little bit of work and we started small with an hour or so a day and it has built up from there. For a while, certainly, the concern was that my head had still not healed form the surgery so you didn’t want to be out and around the court and a ball or errant pass hit you. That kept me off the court for a while and so that limited me to watching practice from the observation deck or something like that.”
Mitchell was cleared physically on October 15th and it has been a “steady build up” since then. His plan is to be back to 100 percent by the start of the season.
“The assistants have done a great job and I cannot sign their praises enough. I cannot tell you what it was like to not see the team for a while and then go see the progress they are making and basically, you know, it looks exactly like a Kentucky basketball team. I am really, really appreciative to the assistants and what we have built here. It has definitely been a slow and limited process but I think it has been the best way to go about it.”
The process may be slow and difficult on Coach Mitchell, but he walks away from his offseason scare with an even greater appreciation for life and his job at Kentucky.
“It is a pretty sobering moment,” Mitchell said in conclusion. “It just makes you understand how precious life is and I know we all say that and believe that but it just makes you realize that we are not promised anything. What I have just tried to do is be real grateful to God for the all the blessing I have with my family and then just the opportunity to be around such a special group of people in our basketball program.
“These are incredible young women that are just going to make a great, great team and a team we are all going to be proud of. It is an incredible opportunity to be around a group of people like that. I think it just heightens my gratitude for just the tremendous people are in my life. I am real grateful for that.”