The University of Kentucky has an edge in brand recognition on nearly every basketball program in the nation.
Even with that advantage, it took Matthew Mitchell three seasons before he could get the school’s women’s basketball team back to the 20-win mark and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Now in his fifth season at coach at Kentucky, Mitchell, who is from Louisville and is a 1995 graduate of Mississippi State University, also knows what is possible at MSU.
“The great thing about Sharon Fanning is she built a program and she has shown what is possible at Mississippi State,” Mitchell said. “Winning didn’t seem possible before she got there. She has had some great, great success, especially two years ago taking the program to the Sweet 16.
On Monday, Fanning-Otis announced she will retire at the end of this season. Today, MSU (14-14, 4-11 Southeastern Conference) will honor its seniors and Fanning-Otis in ceremonies before and after its game at 12:30 p.m. (ESPNU) against No. 13 Kentucky (23-5, 12-3) at Humphrey Coliseum.
There are plenty of other storylines that will make the regular-season finale for both teams entertaining. Kentucky can clinch the SEC regular-season title with a victory, and wrap up the top seed for the SEC tournament, which starts Thursday in Nashville, Tenn.
MSU will try to snap a three-game losing streak and try to protect its seeding for the SEC tournament. It enters action today tied for ninth with Auburn, but it holds the higher seed based on a 62-57 victory in their game Jan. 22 in Starkville. A loss by MSU and a win today by Auburn against the University of Mississippi would help the Tigers jump the Lady Bulldogs in the standings.
The No. 8 and No. 9 seeds in the SEC tournament kick off action at noon Thursday. The No. 7 seed takes on the No. 10 seed in the second game, 30 minutes following the completion of the first game.
A victory today by Kentucky would earn the program its first No. 1 in the SEC tournament. Mitchell has guided Kentucky to a No. 2 seed in the event the past two seasons and went on to 28-8 and 25-9 finishes. In 2009-10, Kentucky was picked to finish 11th in the SEC preseason poll but it set a record for most wins in program history (28), most conference wins (11), the highest conference finish in 28 years (second), and the program’s first Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1982.
Despite the recent success, Kentucky and MSU are at the bottom of the SEC in terms of all-time NCAA appearances. MSU has earned all six of its trips to the NCAAs under Fanning-Otis, including the trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2009-10, while Kentucky and South Carolina have made eight appearances in the “Big Dance,” while Arkansas has made nine.
Mitchell said it isn’t easy transforming a program that hasn’t had a lot of success. He said the key for the next coach at MSU will to “simplify your message” to everybody involved with the program. Like former LSU coach Van Chancellor told The Dispatch earlier this week, the next coach has to recruit the right players.
“That is the toughest thing to do when you’re down and not one of the top teams in the conference and you don’t have a lot of tradition,” Mitchell said. “I think it is more difficult to get people excited about the opportunity.”
Mitchell said he faced a similar situation when he left Morehead State and took over for current Tennessee assistant coach Mickie DeMoss. Kentucky went 17-16 and 16-16 in his first two seasons and played in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
“You have to find some people who sort of will dream along with you,” Mitchell said. “What we started with there was what we believed could happen. We didn’t have anything tangible to show it could.”
Mitchell said it helped his program that Kentucky basketball has a national brand name that gives it an edge against other SEC teams. Still, he feels players don’t pay a lot of attention to tradition, only if the program is Tennessee or Connecticut. Other than that, Mitchell doesn’t feel a program needs a wealth of tradition to become a powerhouse.
Mitchell said it will be important for MSU to identify what it believes in and to stay focused on that plan. At Kentucky, Mitchell has instilled a hard-nosed, attacking style of play that utilizes pressure defense to force mistakes. The high-energy style of play has helped Kentucky lead the SEC in scoring (75.1 points per game) and scoring margin (16.6 ppg.) this season.
“What I found helpful was not to worry about anybody else and to have a narrow focus and tunnel vision about what is good for Kentucky. That is what worked for us,” Mitchell said. “You hope to get a few breaks and convince the right kind of kid. We didn’t start out being able to get the very top of the top. We had to find good athletes who worked hard, defended, and played tough defense. Slowly but surely we won some games and changed the program around. Now we’re able to get in with some of the top recruits. It is a long, tough process, and there are no guarantees.”
The development of Victoria Dunlap, who was named SEC Player of the Year by The Associated Press in 2010 and 2011 epitomized how Kentucky went after players who weren’t top-10 recruits, worked with them, and used them in a system that allowed them to shine.
Mitchell feels the next coach at MSU will be able to do the same thing. He said that coach has to find energetic assistant coaches who will be able to go throughout the state to sell MSU and the plan for success. He also feels the next coaches and administration have to work together to build an exciting atmosphere that will help attract more players.
“I think it definitely helps you when you can tell a recruit that people care about what you’re doing and that you’re working really, really hard and the payoff is going to be every night you run out from the locker room onto Memorial Coliseum floor and there is going to be a thunderous ovation,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing because they are going to be 5,000 to 7,500 in the stands.”
Mitchell feels if the next coaches get the players — like when MSU had All-SEC standouts LaToya Thomas and Tan White — fans will come and make The Hump an even more exciting place to watch women’s basketball. As someone who had wonderful memories in Starkville, Mitchell is confident the next coach can win at MSU.
“All places are unique,” Mitchell said. “You can’t really say what would work in Lexington would work in Auburn, or what would work in Auburn would work in Starkville. You have to get in wherever you are and assess the situation and be smart how you allocate resources with your time. If you’re in a spot where people aren’t on fire with basketball, you spend more time recruiting and build it a little more slowly. I don’t care where you are in this conference, people appreciate excellence. If you have a top-10 basketball team, you’re going to have people interested in what you’re doing.”
With that said, Mitchell said he is happy as coach at Kentucky and that he wishes the best for MSU in its search. He admits MSU is a “huge” challenge, but he cautions that no team is guaranteed success and hard work is an equalizer that can help any program transform itself, much like Kentucky has developed into an upper-echelon SEC power. That is the mind-set he said the next coach at MSU has to have and has to sell to his players and to the next classes of Lady Bulldogs.
“This is best job I can have. That’s the mentality you have at Georgia, at Mississippi State, at Auburn, or at Tennessee,” Mitchell said. “When you start comparing this job to that job and this job is better than that job, or this town is better that that town, that is the wrong mentality. Don’t waste one second thinking about things like that.
“Starkville, Miss., is one of the greatest places I have been to. I have had some of the most wonderful memories on that campus, so you can’t tell me it is a bad place or it is a tougher place to be than anywhere else. It is a tough job because it is in the SEC, but it also is a great opportunity for somebody.”
Adam Minichino is the former Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.