Pat Summitt....Andy Landers....Van Chancellor - all Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductees.
In fact, 1/3 of the active coaches in the WBHOF can be found in the SEC. Vanderbilt and Auburn have had post-season success in recent years too. Dawn Staley at South Carolina is a household name among women's basketball circles.
So who is that ranked pre-season #2 in the SEC behind Summitt's Lady Vols? Get ready SEC, there's a brash, coach coming out of Lexington, Kentucky to crash the party, and his last name isn't Calipari.Matthew Mitchell is in his fourth year as the head coach of the Wildcats. The first three years all ended with postseason tournament appearances, topped by last season's trip to the NCAA's Elite Eight. He returns this season with a Kentucky team that is loaded with talent - including his first McDonald's All-American - and is looking forward to the upcoming season. However, Mitchell realizes he's not going to sneak up on anyone any longer, and that his team is going to have to push even harder to succeed.
To help reach their goals, Mitchell has arranged a difficult out of conference schedule, to go with the always rigorous SEC conference schedule. After opening against his former team, Morehead State, this Friday, it gets far more difficult. Notre Dame and Middle Tennessee State come in to Lexington. The Wildcats will go to Duke on January 4, 2011 in a great matchup, and the intrastate game at Louisville and their new arena will be a challenge.
As I mentioned before, in Jennifer O'Neill, Mitchell has his first McDonald's All-American. As the "new guy" competing not just on the court but also in the recruiting wars with the Tennessees, Georgias and LSUs of the SEC, how difficult is it to succeed?
The team suffered a blow prior to the season however, with a knee injury knocking Amber Smith out of the lineup. Smith is more than just the PG of this team, but she is a leader, the glue that helps keep them together. She is optimistic about returning, and in the meantime freshman O'Neill and junior Crystal Riley will try to keep the Wildcats on the right path.
Even with Smith's absence though, Kentucky has some serious talent. It starts with center/forward senior Victoria Dunlap, who is on both the Wooden and Wade Trophy pre-season watch lists. Dunlap, an undersized post with incredible athletic ability, is an All-American, and was last year's SEC player of the year. She led the team in scoring (18.1), rebounding (8.4), blocks (1.9) and steals (3.1) per game.
If Dunlap is to succeed inside, sophomore A'dia Mathies needs to play at the level that made her SEC freshmen of the year. The second leading scorer on the team (13.6 ppg), Mathies actually led the team in minutes per game, and saved her best for the conference, where she scored in double figures in 11 of 16 SEC games, ending up 2nd team All SEC.
In almost every pre-season poll this season, the talk is about whether Pat Summitt can return to the top of the National Championship picture, with a Lady Vols team loaded with returning talent. There is no doubt that Tennessee is an extremely strong team, with a legitimate claim to the top spots in the national polls.
Still, Matthew Mitchell and Kentucky are building an impressive resume that cannot be overlooked. Mitchell's Wildcats have advanced to three consecutive postseason tournaments - including an NCAA Elite Eight appearance last season - defeated nine nationally-ranked opponents, finished in the top 10 of the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, had seven players receive All-SEC accolades, including UK's first SEC Player and Freshman of the Year, had six SEC Academic Honor Roll members, one SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year, one State Farm/WBCA All-American and all eight players in their final season of eligibility received their degree.
Very impressive. It will really be a fun season in the SEC and Kentucky will be in the thick of it all season I'm sure.