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Mitchell builds defensive juggernaut at Kentucky


Adam Minichino



Matthew Mitchell knew who to call when he wanted to talk abut defense. 


Mitchell spent time as an assistant coach at the University of Florida and the University of Kentucky before becoming the head coach at Morehead State University in 2005. When Mitchell returned to the Southeastern Conference in 2007 to take over at Kentucky, he wanted to find a way to design an aggressive player-to-player pressure defense that was going to maximize the talents of his players. It was natural for him to reach out to Vic Schaefer, who was then associate head coach to Gary Blair at Texas A&M University. 


"We had a 20- to 30-minute conversation one day and he really gave me some great insight about what was important and some things I really needed to think about that were influential in helping us make that move (to that defense)," Mitchell said. 


Mitchell has used that conversation, ones with other coaches, and the knowledge he gained from some of the best prep basketball coaches in the state of Mississippi to build a program that has climbed to the top of the SEC. At 6 tonight, Mitchell and No. 5 Kentucky (16-1, 4-0 SEC) will play host to MSU (8-9, 0-4) at Memorial Gym. WKBB-FM 100.9 and WXWX-FM 96.3 will broadcast the game live. 


Kentucky has won the past five meetings by an average of more than 24 points per game. Mitchell, who is from Louisville, Miss., entered this season with a 114-56 record in five seasons at Kentucky. Last season, Kentucky (28-7 overall) went 13-3 in the SEC and won the regular-season title. He earned SEC Coach of the Year honors from The Associated Press for his efforts. Mitchell went 17-16 and 16-16 in his first two seasons at Kentucky. He said the transformation of his program from one that had bigger athletes and post players that weren't as mobile into one that relies on athletic players who want to be at Kentucky has been successful because of the hard work of a lot of people.  


"It's pretty simple. We have to play awfully hard and the kids are willing work hard," Mitchell said. "One thing we never try to do is to confuse simple and easy. It is not easy (to play their brand of defense), but it is pretty simple. I think it starts with being grateful for your opportunity, and I am really, really grateful to be the head coach at Kentucky." 


Mitchell's defensive approach isn't the only connection he has with Schaefer, who is in his first season as head coach at MSU. Schaefer, who earned the nickname "Secretary of Defense" for his work as an assistant and as an associate head coach at the University of Arkansas and at Texas A&M, wants to use hard work, pressure defense, and accountability to build a program at MSU. He has said it is crucial for players to take pride in the fact they get a chance to wear a MSU uniform, and that he expects them to dictate the tempo and aggressiveness in games. His approach is taking hold as he feels Bulldogs making small steps toward playing with the energy and intensity he demands for 40 minutes. 


On Sunday, MSU played to that level for more than 30 minutes. The downfall came in a five-and-a-half-minute stretch at the end of the first half in which LSU transformed a 17-13 lead into a 35-15 halftime lead. The Tigers went on to win 64-42. 


"We lost our poise for about five and a half minutes," Schaefer said.  


Sophomore center Martha Alwal said MSU played well in stretches but that she felt the team grew a little too comfortable and didn't react well. As a result, the team committed too many unforced mistakes that sent it reeling. 


"It wasn't even their pressure. We were handing them the ball and throwing the ball to them," Alwal said. "It was more of us not concentrating and focusing on what we're supposed to do." 


Alwal, who started 15 games last season, sees parallels between the lapses this year's team has and the ones that plagued the Bulldogs in a 14-16 season in 2011-12. She believes the team is playing better and that the Bulldogs have improved on defense, but that they need to slow down and can't be in a rush. Unfortunately, timing isn't on MSU's side. Kentucky forced MSU into 29 and 33 turnovers in two victories last season. This season, Kentucky leads the SEC is forcing turnovers (25.5 per game), turnover margin (+9.9), and scoring margin (24.9). 


"Our biggest thing is we can't let them get to us and we can't let the crowd influence what we do. We have to play our ball," Alwal said. "I am pretty sure they are going to play man the whole time, and when they do that we have to run through our plays and execute them." 


Schaefer knows that will be a challenge because his best defensive teams at Arkansas and Texas A&M made the simplest entry pass a chore. He sees MSU making progress and developing those habits. He also sees them in full bloom at Kentucky. 


"Kentucky feeds off defense," Schaefer said. 


Mitchell said trying to recruit players for his style of play is an inexact science. He credits players like senior A'dia Mathies, the defending SEC Player of the Year, and juniors like Kastine Evans, a 5-foot-8 guard, for helping to make defense a staple of the program. 


"I don't think players play this way unless they really, really believe you care about them and they really believe it is going to benefit them in the long run," Mitchell said. "There has to be some trust there because practice is not easy and there are a lot of tough times that go into playing this way. I have to say I am very grateful for everybody who has made it possible, and I am grateful for any recognition we have gotten and any reputation we have been able to develop. We don't spend a lot of time thinking about things outside the program, but I do think we have developed a positive reputation as a team that plays really hard on defense, is in great shape, and plays tenacious defense."


Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.


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