What a season it’s been for Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky women’s basketball team. The No. 9 Cats upset No. 8 Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tournament Thursday, but the good fortune didn’t last. The Wildcats were eliminated from the SEC Tournament Friday, falling to an undefeated Mississippi State (31-0) 81-58. The Cats’ 14-16 season record marks the first time in Mitchell’s tenure the team has finished under .500. Now, for the first time in eight years, UK Hoops will not make the NCAA tournament. What went wrong? What went right? Here are the three takeaways from a tough season.
1. Matthew Mitchell’s future
Let’s start with the obvious. Despite the mass exodus of 2015, in which the program had more scholarship players transfer or decommit (seven) than return (six), Kentucky was able to hold on last season and even advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament thanks to then-seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. But this season, the turnover caught up to the Cats, and Kentucky was exponentially less successful after the departure of two of last season’s three leading scorers.
This year was tagged as the “recovery year” even back in 2015, but now the real question emerges: how will Kentucky move forward from here? The future is bright with two highly-touted 2018 recruits: Blair Green and Rhyne Howard both signed with the Cats last November. Green is a four-star prospect and the ninth best wing in the 2018 class, according to ESPN; Howard is a five-star prospect, the 10th best guard and 31st best overall player in the 2018 class. Both ladies are favorites to win the title “Miss Basketball” in their respective states, Kentucky for Green and Tennessee for Howard.
Mitchell’s ability to sign two highly-rated recruits shows he’s “still got it.” But if he fails to develop these players, it will not only hurt the team for another year, but it will also further hurt recruiting for the program. Mitchell’s contract was extended last December through 2022 for $825,000 annually with a five percent increase every year.
2. Consistency is key
While the Cats struggled on both sides of the ball this season, their inconsistent offense caused them the most issues. Take the Cats’ most recent loss, for instance. UK came out firing, hitting 66.7 percent from the field, and Kentucky actually led Mississippi State 23-22 at the end of the first quarter. But then the wheels started to come off, as UK Hoops has seen all season. In the next ten minutes, the Cats couldn’t buy a basket, and the Bulldogs went on a 19-2 run, including five consecutive three-pointers. Over the next two quarters, the Cats couldn’t get their offense back on track and were outscored 46-21.
After seven straight 20-point games, junior Maci Morris struggled offensively against the Bulldogs. She finished with 13 points – five of which came from free throws – plus three rebounds and three turnovers.
Moving forward, the Cats have to become a more consistent threat on the offensive side of the ball. There cannot be anymore sub-20 percent shooting quarters if Kentucky wants to find itself back in the NCAA tournament next season.
3. Morris-Murray Combo
The bright spot of this year’s team boils down to Kentucky’s two top-producing scorers: Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. Combined, the two averaged just under 29 points per game. Luckily for the Cats, the duo will be returning for their senior years next season. And they’re not the only ones returning: Kentucky returns the majority of its offense, losing only Jessica Hardin (1.2 ppg) and Alyssa Rice (6.6 ppg and 5.8 rpg).
Kentucky’s freshmen this season showed promise. Dorie Harrison and Tatyana Wyatt each averaged over six points per game; Keke McKinney and Amanda Paschal both averaged 4.7. With added minutes plus another year of experience, these ladies have the potential to develop into key players for Kentucky in the coming seasons.
Left without a bid for the NCAA Tournament, what’s next for the Kentucky women’s team? Click here to find out.