There Is No Joy in Hoopsville

Photo by Victoria Graff

Photo by Victoria Graff

Honestly, the most that most of us know about Matthew Mitchell is the dancing he does at Big Blue Madness. It portrays a guy who’s willing to relate to his group of young, hip athletes.

It’s more, though, than just channeling Hammer and Elvis. There’s also the return to success Mitchell has brought to the Kentucky women’s basketball program. In public interviews, he seems like a well-meaning, earnest guy. Far from the kind of personality that invites strong feelings.

And yet, there’s strong-enough feeling in Mitchell’s world that his players and coaches are now abandoning the UK hoops program in droves. There were some indications early on, a few freshmen who left the team at the beginning of last season. Some issues with Makayla Epps, the team’s leading player, though that all seemed resolved by the end of the year.

And it was a terrific year! That’s the puzzling part. Often, when programs fall apart – when coaches and players stop communicating, or when they communicate badly and too much – you see the losses and the disappointments mount.

But last season’s Kentucky hoops team won 25 games, making it to the semi-finals of the SEC tournament and into the Elite Eight of the national tournament.

It was in the national Top Ten for much of December – while winning its first 11 games – and finished the regular season in the 12th spot. That was not mediocrity being brewed over in Memorial Coliseum. As Mitchell said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, “It’s not like we’re sitting here in a trash dump and don’t know what we’re doing.”

Then what are they doing? That’s the mystery!

Could his teams have performed better? There’s always that notion for every athletic team. But after inheriting a program from Mickie DeMoss in 2007 and taking a couple of years to settle himself in, Mitchell won 186 games in the next seven seasons, an average of nearly 27 wins a season. Three times, his teams have reached the NCAA quarterfinals, once in the marvelous 30-win season of 2012-13. He coached two of UK’s all-time greats, Victoria Dunlap and then A’dia Mathies. He was twice SEC Coach of the Year.

In other words, this is no Billy Clyde Gillispie situation, a total implosion of results on the court and personalities off the court.

Bringing up Gillispie’s name suggests another aspect of the Mitchell situation. He has long operated in the shadows of UK’s powerful men’s program. It was always felt that was to the disadvantage of the strong women’s teams. But maybe it has given whatever is going on with Mitchell, his coaches and players some cover.

Mitchell’s program hasn’t been as intensely deconstructed as the men’s program, especially since John Calipari arrived two seasons after Mitchell did. Everything that goes on in Camp Cal is intensely scrutinized and analyzed, even down to the changing colors of Willie Cauley-Stein’s hair or the changing shades of Andrew Harrison’s facial expressions. There’s also, of course, the question of whether Cal himself is getting and answering calls from Cleveland or Sacramento or Brooklyn. All we seem to know on the women’s side is that they play a spirited game and the girls sure seem happy.

So when the clouds opened up – including prize recruit Lindsey Corsaro’s decommitment to come to Lexington – Big Blue Nation was unprepared for the downpour. So, for that matter, was the media contingent that follows UK sports. Jason Marcum, the respected editor of the A Sea of Blue blog site and a journalist who is always on top of UK sports events, has been reporting the ever-changing rumors and daily non-events involving men’s recruit Marques Bolden. He admits he has gained no handle on what’s going on over on the women’s side. “I just don’t know,” he told me in an email, in obvious frustration. “I’ve been trying to find out. There’s definitely something going on, though.”

Initially, Coach Mitchell did all the right – and expected – things: expressing contrition, accepting responsibility, insisting he has learned something (but what?) from these recent developments and vowing to examine whatever has gone wrong with his program. And then, everything went underground. We haven’t heard much more in the last several days.

In bad, good and better years, the men’s players have always had a double agenda: win for UK and then follow their own dreams to the NBA. For the women, any pro dreams seemed secondary. There always seemed to be more at stake in succeeding right here. The playing and winning seemed to be the point. And it was joyful. Unfortunately, the joy seems to have fled the building. VT