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WATCH: Matthew Mitchell’s first public comments since successful brain surgery

For the first time since a serious brain surgery saw him go under the knife, Matthew Mitchell was back in the public eye.

The Kentucky Women’s Basketball head coach underwent successful surgery back in June to repair a crack in his skull that left him with a concussion not long after the NCAA Tournament was canceled in March of this past year. On Thursday afternoon, Mitchell was made available to the media as he answered questions about his upcoming roster and what life has been like for him over the last seven or so months.

Mitchell described how he’s been “deeply appreciative” of the support he’s recieved both on and off the hardwood from his dedicated coaching staff. His assistants were able to fill in seemlessly during his absence, making for an even easier transition once Mitchell was finally able to make his return to running practices just a couple of weeks ago. With a roster that could go as many as 10 talented players deep, Mitchell had plenty to talk about following his media hiatus. Check out everything he had to say in the video below–the entire transcript is posted underneath.

Opening statement …

“Good to be with everybody today. It’s an exciting season ahead, full of a lot of challenges I am sure, but we have an energetic team, and a resilient team, and a team that has really worked hard to put themselves in a position to have a great season. It’s been a lot of fun to watch the team develop. We’re very excited about the upcoming season. 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. 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.”

On challenges on putting together a non-conference schedule for the season…

“Well the challenge has been just what everyone is basically dealing with, the same pandemic but are working through it in different ways. It’s been challenging to get the conference schedule together and for people to agree with what’s been going on, for us to analyze what’s best in the best interest for our member schools and then once you start with non-conference that are going different directions. Everybody is working hard to try to provide a safe environment so the students and players can have a season in 2021. So just the limited number of games and the safety precautions other schools are using, it’s been quite challenging. We are very close to finishing up ours. It’s tough out there right now to get a schedule put together with all those factors in play.”

On what’s it been like for Coach Mitchell’s family these past few months…

“Well I appreciate how supportive they’ve been. You know it was good in some respects as far being able to slow down and spend some time with family. So anytime, even for someone like you Larry, you known for a long time, 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.”

On how energizing it is to have such depth in the post …

“It’s very exciting to see the talent we have in the post position. You know we’re so proud how KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt worked through their career when they haven’t had a lot of depth and just played so hard and done such a great job. You can see that experience show through in our practices. So, I think they are poised for a great senior season. Then three newcomers are outstanding and potentially we could have a very deep post rotation which certainty we love and helps our style of play trying to keep pressure both offensively and defensively. You know when you have post players who can run to the rim on offense and put pressure on the opponent’s offense (it’s huge). I think our physical presence around the basket is going to improve with the additions Olivia, Dre’una, Nyah, all three of them are unique individual players. So, Olivia has that great size. She has that experience she’s gained over a couple of years in college already. I like her maturity. She’s a very intelligent player and just gives us some great size and power around the rim. Dre’una Edwards just is a fantastic player. She’s not as tall as Olivia and Nyah but she is very powerful, great scorer, very versatile, can handle the basketball unusually well for a post player, can shoot the ball away from the basket, tough and physical around the basket and a great passer. I think one of the big things that is unique this year is I’ve really enjoyed seeing us develop a high low game that we’ve just haven’t have the last few years and part of that is the way Dre’una is able to pass the ball. She is a really good passer from the high post down to the low post. Nyah is a freshman whose motor will not stop. She’s just going to give you everything she has, same every practice, it’s really impressive, very long explosive athlete, so she’s already making her presence felt in practice with rebounding, really has a great nose for the ball, great timing, can get some big rebounds. All three players that I just talked about in addition to KeKe and Tot, you know really give us some added shot blocking. So, it’s a good group and they work hard, and are getting better. We just have to really continue to develop and make sure we may attention to fundamentals. If they come in with a great attitude every day, pay attention to fundamentals, and just have a great work ethic, they’ll develop into a really great post scorers.”

On Treasure Hunt …

“It is alright to be optimistic, Larry, because she is a talented player. She is just working – all the freshmen – it just never fails it seems like to have to make an adjustment to the pace with how we practice and how important each play is in practice and the detail you have to pay attention to. She is tremendously talented and so gifted. Another physical presence and upgrade for us at the wing position. She has great length, great size and is very strong as a freshman. All of that will juts continue to improve. She is a tremendous shooter and very poised ballhandler. She is still working hard to get up to speed defensively, but that is a process that we go through every year and she is getting better at that every day. She is tremendously gifted and talented. Again, I will just tell you that we have to do a great job coaching her and paying attention to the details and make sure we are doing the right things on the basketball court on how to be a Kentucky Wildcat. She has just shown tremendously improvement and potentially could be a big weapon for us. I am so excited that she is with us.:”

On the Louisville series and Robyn Benton and Jazmine Massengill’s eligibility …

“Yeah, we definitely are pushing that game back a year. I think it was just a casualty of the pandemic and COVID-19. I think the ACC settled in on 20 games and that certainly puts some pressure and compression on the schedule. In talking with Jeff when he and I had a conversation, it is an important game for our Commonwealth and an important game for our program. They are always such a challenge each and every year and tough and we obviously profit by playing them. This year, we were not able to get it done and I just think that there are some things that are happening during the pandemic that are not ideal but we have to make the best of it and move forward. We will definitely resume the series, it is an important game. Jazmine and Robyn, we are not expecting them to play. We would have to get some different information before I would start to count on them to play this season. They are working hard in practice and are great additions to the program. If something on that changes we will certainly update everyone as soon as it does. The way that I approach it, we are not expecting them to play but would be a tremendous bonus if they were able to. That is my updated on Jazmine and Robyn and very fortunate that they are at Kentucky.”

On Rhyne Howard needing to play with better pace …

“I think the most important thing for us as a staff is to constantly remind Rhyne of the goals that she has set for herself. She wants to be the best player in the country. There are a lot of people that want to be that but she is one of the few people that want to do it and actually has the chance to do that. For us, I think it just comes down to trying to hold her to a high standard every day. She is so gifted, Christy. It is a fine line between that talent being a blessing and that talent being a curse in some ways in how you approach it. If things come so easy to you, you feel like you are seeing results and seeing production but if you are not giving your absolute best that overtime will end up getting you to a spot where you are not the best. It is just a matter of reminding her that she is so competitive and so driven and that is the one thing I go into practice with every day is just trying to make sure I hold her to a very high standard. If I see something that she needs to do a little bit better, just encouraging her to do that. She is so well rounded and just makes such a difference in every phase offensively and defensively she can make game-changing plays. She has a chance to be the best player out there and as a coaching staff we just have to remind her that if that is what she wants to be she has to practice with great pace and intensity each and every day and it will pay off for her as an individual and will pay huge dividends with how the other players will respond. I always think when the best player on your team is the best person in practice, it really elevates everybody. I always admired that out of Tamika Catchings and watching her for a year when I was at Tennessee. She was clearly the best player on the team and the best player in the country really, and she just practiced so very hard. I have always tried to use her as an example for our players and really let them know what a big impact that can make not only on them as a player but on the team and team’s success.”

On 30 percent of the team’s offense coming off turnovers and if it will look different this season …

“I think we can be more dynamic, definitely. I think we have added athleticism not only at the post but we are more athletic at the wing – not just with newcomers, but some of our returners it’s been incredible to me to see the progress they have made in these challenging times. We certainly did not have our normal summer and time to focus in on getting stronger and there was just a great commitment from our players on their own at home. Chasity Patterson looks fantastic. Blair Green looks so much stronger and more athletic. She is much more dynamic on the defensive end. Emma King has just made tremendous strides and as a freshman she didn’t obviously play a tremendous amount, but she has worked really, really hard. That is just an example of some of our returners that just kind of stand out and you are fueled with some confident that you can go out and put together some lineups that can extend and play tough, pressure, disruptive defense. As far as anything differently, I really like how we look in some half court zone that is very aggressive. We are bigger and longer and take up a lot of space and I think we can be a really disruptive zone defense team this year in the half court. So a lot of excitement around that end of the court defensively. I think we have a lot of options where we can really put a lot of pressure on the opponents. We have that reputation, but we try to make it clear to the team that you have to go out and earn it every single year. You can’t just say that since you are at Kentucky we are going to turn them over and get those points. I like where we are on that right now, I think the team is working hard. We have a long way to go and a lot of improvement to make, but this group definitely has the potential to be an outstanding Kentucky, attacking, disruptive defense.”

On potential rotations for the team …

“We are not at a spot yet where I feel comfortable on what exactly those rotations will be. We are still developing and growing and trying to make practice extremely competitive. That is where we really always know that those will shake out. I do think there is potential – very realistic potential – for us to be 10 deep. And really, right now, with all 12 of the players who are eligible for this season you can see everybody out there and a path way for them to get playing time. We have a very talented group. If Jazmine and Robyn were eligible we would have 14. So we have done a really good job of building a solid team and a team with depth. Now it us to the players and us as coaches to develop them and find out what those rotations will be. There are some combinations where you can play four guards and one post and still have some good size out on the court and I think that could cause some problems. You could even swing like a Dre’una Edwards out to the 4 or the 5 or get reps at the 3. So there is some versatility there where we will just continue to let that develop and shake out in practice. The way that it has affected me in my recovery is that I wasn’t able to get around the team for a while and had to stay home and rest and then you progress back to start observing the practices and then progress to getting on the floor and getting back at it. So, just cannot thank our coaching staff enough – Kyra Elzy, Niya Butts, Amber Smith, Daniel Boice – one of our staff members, has done a great job stepping on the floor and aiding the staff as we develop the team, Amy Tilley our director of ops has just done an amazing job and Courtney Jones our athletic trainer, I just cannot tell you how much work they have had to do. Really grateful for the staff and grateful they did such a great job and kept the core value and principles of our program going. So the first time I was able to see the team I was really amazed and so grateful for how hard everybody had worked. It was fun to have that experience and to know that the program is very solid.”

On some of the frustrations during his recovery and being patient with his recovery …

“I think that was the biggest challenge was just being patient. The initial challenge was the recovery and without getting into it in too much detail the surgical area was hard and is still healing. That was a big challenge with the pain in your head and getting over that and bone heals very, very slowly. 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. The coaches have been so supportive and that has been an amazing process. I think just being patient when in 25 years of coaching you have been going non-stop and now you have to slow down. That was a bit of a challenge.”

On the environment in Memorial Coliseum looking different this season …

“It is going to be a tough, tough time I am sure if we end up in that spot where people who want to come to the game cannot come to the game. That is so, so sad and I know disappointing for people. But I just hope this team can even through television bring you a lot of joy and happiness watching them. You know they are going to play really hard. We have all had to learn how important our attitude and out outlook is during the pandemic and I think we just have to as a fanbase stay supportive no matter how you are watching the game. Whether you are fortunate enough to be in the building and watching – if that is a possibility – or watching the game at home or listening to the radio. I think that is important for everyone to stay positive and know that everyone is working as hard as humanly possible to provide this opportunity for our players and all the players around the country to play basketball. We will just have to be grateful for what we do have.”

On limitations he has coaching now after his injury …

“Definitely, Carolyn, that has been the plan to work back in incrementality and not to try to rush it too fast and we have talked a little bit earlier that is what my surgeon urged the entire time. If I did not listen to anything else, just be patient. What you didn’t want to do is not get to a spot and then set yourself back even further. 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. So it was Oct. 15 when I was finally cleared physically to go back and we have been working a steady build up – 25%, 50%, 75% – and the plan is to be full speed a little bit before we start the season. I am able to give a lot of input and see a lot of practice and like I said, 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.”

On what he will be looking for scoring wise from Rhyne Howard with so many more pieces around her this season …

“Yeah, I think that it is still important for her to stay really aggressive, Carolyn. While I have not had a conversation like that with her yet as far as a number, when she is open she needs to shoot the ball. If a team leaves her open every possession, she needs to shoot it. She is such a great scorer and shooter it is just amazing. I used to get in trouble for shooting the ball when I played and Rhyne Howard is going to get in trouble for not shooting the ball. She just needs to shoot and fire away and have that aggressive attacked mentality offensively. She is a very special player and any open shot for her is a good shot.”

On what he has gained an appreciation for going through his injury …

“It is a pretty sobering moment. 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.”

On Chasity Patterson bringing energy to the team this season …

“That is a great point and she is doing such a great job. She is electrifying. Her energy and her speed and she is just so dynamic on both ends of the floor. I think we will definitely look to her to provide some energy. She has a huge heart and cares so much for her team and is a constant playmaker. We will rely on her a lot for energy and she certainly brings it on the court right now. So yea, we will rely on her a lot for that during this season.”

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Recruiting reporter for KSR. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR