This morning, Matthew Mitchell was dealt another blow when word leaked out that Chanin Scott, his only remaining 2016 signee, reopened her recruitment. Scott is the fourth recruit to decommit from the UK Hoops program since the season ended, and the eleventh player since October to sever ties with Mitchell’s squad, an alarming trend that has only gotten worse in recent weeks. Three weeks ago, I made a timeline of the program’s departures, and since then, assistant coach Camryn Whitaker resigned to take the head coaching job at Northern Kentucky, sophomore forward Alexis Jennings requested a transfer, Chanin Scott decommitted, and there are only six players on scholarship for next semester. To help stem the flow, Mitchell brought back former assistants Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts, and former player Amber Smith to join the staff, but today’s news certainly doesn’t help.
In a surprisingly busy offseason for Kentucky sports, the UK Hoops exodus has been the talk of the Big Blue Nation, with fans everywhere wondering what the heck is happening to a program that, from the outside, seemed to be on the rise. We may never know the true reason for all of the departures, but today, I’ve done my best to break down where Mitchell and his new staff go from here.
No more absentee coach
In an open letter to fans on Friday, Mitchell denied “rumors of some scandal that does not exist,” instead shouldering the blame for not devoting enough attention to his staff and players.
“What I now clearly see is my failure to get what was in my head and in my heart to enough people to prevent something like this from happening,” Mitchell wrote. “Good intentions are worthless if they are not communicated effectively. I needed to be more involved in the details of our success and communicate that to people more effectively.”
Next year will be rocky, but if one thing is for certain, it’s that few things will happen in the Joe Craft Center without Mitchell knowing.
If contracts are any indication, Mitchell has Mitch Barnhart’s support
While athletic director Mitch Barnhart has yet to hold a press conference about the status of the UK Hoops program, he has expressed his support for Mitchell during interviews with the Herald-Leader and the Courier-Journal.
“To say it’s not going in the right direction wouldn’t be accurate or fair,” Barnhart said in an interview with Jen Smith. “The question is: On the journey can we find our way back on the path we want to get on in terms of a little more clear direction? We’re not that far off.”
There’s been more turnover since that interview on April 28, but Barnhart’s support for Mitchell is evident in the contracts Mitchell has signed with Elzy and Butts. Normally, assistant coaches sign one-year deals, but they both received two-year contracts, a clear sign Barnhart is committed to helping the program find some stability.
A “good cop” to balance the “bad cop”
Over the years, Mitchell has developed a reputation as an intense coach that is hard on his players in practice. While that image conflicts with the Mitchell we know off the court, it’s definitely not uncommon in the sport. A popular theory behind the departures is the lack of a “good cop” on staff to offset Mitchell’s “bad cop.” Not any more. In the press release announcing Butts’ hiring, Mitchell said he is confident he’ll help the coaching staff achieve some balance.
“I have thought a lot the last few weeks about chemistry within our coaching staff and one name that I kept coming back to was Niya Butts,” Mitchell said. “I have worked with Niya as an assistant and was fortunate enough to have her on staff in my first year at Kentucky. I have said this before and still have complete confidence that Niya helps balance me out in a way that will positively impact our program.”
The same could be said for Elzy and Smith, the latter of which the program hopes will be a bridge between players and coaches.
He’s got to get players somehow
There are currently six players on scholarship for next season:
- Sophomores: Maci Morris, Taylor Murray
- Juniors: Makenzie Cann, Alyssa Rice
- Seniors: Evelyn Akhator, Makayla Epps
As of now, there are no incoming freshmen or transfers. Lindsey Corsaro, who decommitted from UK on April 26, no longer has the Cats on her list. Given the uncertainty around the program, the odds of signing quality recruits for next season seem very grim. Unless he wants to rely on only one sub all season, Mitchell has to add players somehow, so I’d expect the staff to explore the JuCo and grad transfer routes, as well as hold open tryouts. Ladies at UK, if you have even an ounce of coordination, I encourage you to give it a shot.
Forget Mitchell dancing at Big Blue Madness (which, regardless, I think is a bad idea considering the circumstances). At this rate, unless he wants to make the traditional 5-on-5 scrimmage a 3-on-3, he and his assistant coaches will have to play as well.
Will they be able to win?
Mitchell has already taken the blame for the program’s current state, but even if things come together this season, the staff gels, and the ship seems to be righted, how much can you win with only six scholarship players? Having a player the caliber of Makayla Epps certainly helps, but unless Epps, a senior, pulls a Steph Curry and is unstoppable, stringing together enough wins to make the NCAA Tournament, but they’ll have little room for error.
The 2017 recruiting class becomes absolutely crucial
With two seniors on the roster, including Epps, Mitchell’s 2017 class is now the key to his future at Kentucky. That class once included Top 30 commits Lindsey Duvall and Madison Treece, but is now down to only one player, 5’6″ point guard Kameron Roach. The one thing Mitchell can sell to recruits is immediate playing time, but will it be enough to overcome the negativity? Recruiting is all about trends, and right now, UK Hoops is covered in red flags.
One year of bad performance is expected after all the turnover and turmoil, but without a miraculous 2016-2017 result or an elite recruit or two to serve as the light at the end of the tunnel, when will the pressure on Barnhart to sever ties for a fresh start become too much?