Matthew Mitchell says Oklahoma has one big edge — coaching

Matthew Mitchell (Vicky Graff Photo)

Matthew Mitchell (Vicky Graff Photo)

Kentucky plays Oklahoma tonight in Memorial Coliseum in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Tournament for the right to advance to the Lexington Region in Rupp Arena.

Here is what coach Matthew Mitchell had to say at Sunday’s pregame press conference:

On the challenges presented by Oklahoma’s interior defense …
“Well the two kids, 42 (Kaylon Williams) and 0 (Vionise Pierre-Louis), have great size and great length and they’re very top-level players. They will create a real challenge. What you have to do when you’re going against players of that caliber is you have to rely on your strengths. And we have some depth at the post position and they have all worked very hard on their skillset on offense and so you just can never get face to face or chest to chest with shot blockers. You have to concentrate and use angles and use your fundamentals and be really sharp. You have to be really sharp against shot blockers and smart. Our post players have developed so well this season and have made such great progress and this will be another fantastic opportunity for them to measure themselves and see how much progress they truly have made, because those kids are very good players.”

On whether they can grow from last year’s second-round loss …
“You know, we have had really difficult second-round games over the last six tournaments. Really the only one that hasn’t been was our very first one that went to in 2010. We had a really close 4-13 matchup with Liberty that we almost lost and then we really had a big margin of victory over Michigan State two days later. But then since then second round has been really difficult games. Got beat by—we were a 4 and North Carolina was a 5. I think we won by one in a 2-7 versus Green Bay out in Ames. The margin of victory was double digits against Dayton the next year, but it was a real, real tough game. And Syracuse was a tough 3-6 here at home three years ago. And then Dayton, 2-7 last year and it was a really tough game. So we’ve never breezed through to the Sweet 16. It’s always been a battle and so in mind I’ve been a part of all those so I understand how good Oklahoma is and so this is not going to be some shock if Oklahoma wins the game. It’s not going to be some huge upset. It’s going to be a really, really tough game and difficult game so I’m not preparing them for a letdown. We’re preparing for an absolute battle and fight to the finish in order to earn your way into the Sweet 16. So it’s not trouble here trying to guard against a letdown because Oklahoma is a top-level, top-25 perennial tournament team that has great history and their coach is absolutely one of the best in the country. So I’m not really worried about guarding against a letdown right now. I’m trying to get them ready to beat a very good team.”

On areas for improvement …
“I think for us it’s all about our defense. I think when we went back and looked at the game yesterday, we had so many physical advantages over Asheville where we did not pay for some of our mistakes that we will pay for tomorrow if we make the same mistakes. So it’s all about trying to sharpen our defense. I’m sure the Oklahoma coach has watched the game and I’m sure they’re thinking the same thing, is where they can attack us. And it’s really about our positioning. We still, as an inexperienced team, don’t always understand what position we should be in and we have to play defense as a team. And so today’s practice will be what every practice has been about, is trying to find some improvement and that’ll be sharpening our defensive positioning the best that we can because Oklahoma does an outstanding job of spacing the floor to create matchup problems and to really allow their two outstanding post players to make plays in the lane. They do a great job of spacing, cutting, moving and so it will be a tall task for us and so our job today is just exactly what the players just told you: We have to do what Kentucky does well and we have to focus on our strengths and then we have to try to sharpen—to answer your question I’d like to try to sharpen our defensive positioning so we can play as tough of team defense as we can play tomorrow.”

On his message to younger players …
“Well we said before the tournament started, everybody has dreams and aspirations and that’s a good thing. Everybody wants to get to the Final Four, everybody in the tournament. And there’s a few of us in the tournament that believe we can win the tournament and win the national championship. And so those thoughts are in everyone’s head and those dreams are in everyone’s head and that’s a good thing, but just as all of us want to be successful in life and accomplish great things you can’t get focused on the end. You have to go about your daily routine of doing the tough, little detailed things and taking no shortcuts. We just tried to get that out there, that we all understand what we’re trying to do here and what we want to do. And there’s so much talk about us playing in Rupp Arena next weekend. That’s just there. In today’s day and age, you can’t run from that. It’s just there. It’s on their phone all the time. It’s in front of them all the time, so it’s not something that you can ignore and act like you can shield them from it. But what we’ve just tried to do is turn it into a life lesson. For you to be successful and for us to reach our dreams and goals and accomplish what we want to accomplish, we have to stay firmly planted in the present and do what we can control, work on that. So that’s today’s practice. I’m not talking to the younger players about the enormity of the moment or how big this win would be. We’re just going to go in there and really try to get better on defense today and I thought our young players had some really great moments yesterday and I’m sure they had some nerves that they dealt with and they had some difficulties yesterday. So we’re still just trying to coach and we’re trying to get ready for another really important game. We’ve had a bunch of those this year and so that’s how we’re trying to approach it, is that none of the big things that we want to happen will happen unless we take of what’s right in front of us. And that’s today’s practice, is all we’re really focused on right now.”

On Coach Coale saying her team didn’t match up at any position with Kentucky…
“They have a huge advantage in coaching; let me say that first of all. Coach Coale is absolutely one of the best and as you saw her wear Kentucky blue yesterday she is a very smart coach and so they have a big advantage when it comes to coaching. I will not agree with her that they don’t have any advantages in this game. They are an outstanding team and really all jokes aside, when we played them in 2010, she made an adjustment in that game that I didn’t figure out until about a month later that’s how good she was and is. She is such a great coach. We have tried to emulate the way they present Oklahoma basketball. It’s something I have tremendous respect for and that we have tried to emulate. Their players play so hard, they sprint on and off the court, the bench goes out to meet them, things that we try to do and that all goes back from me observing Oklahoma. I’m sure she’s planning for victory tomorrow and we are going to work really hard to make sure we win but I will disagree with her that she doesn’t have any good matchups in this game.”

On how much pace will play at part in tomorrow’s game…
“That’s how we designed the team. We try to be different than a lot of teams where we have some depth and we do try to push the pace. The pace we want, we tried to demonstrate yesterday and we tried to run the floor. That’s one of our strengths. That’s one of the things that we talk about. We have to hone in on that and try to get that done tomorrow so we need it to be a good day for us running the floor. Even if we don’t execute, just trying to put pressure on Oklahoma as they’ll try to put pressure on us in certain ways. I think for us, if we played a half-court game with them, a half-court game of make-it-take-it and you get it at the top and check it up every time, that would be to their advantage. I think they are great half-court team and they are so well-coached and they make great decisions. What we have to try to do is we have to make it a full-court game where maybe we can use some of our advantages in the game and earn a victory. We would like an up-tempo game.”

On his team’s physical strength and conditioning…
“We created this program, one out of desperation because we didn’t have a lot of momentum going and we had to create that momentum. It was with fast and athletic players. We tried to tap into what we had potential to develop. Then, once we saw we were going to be successful, we said there are certain things we are going to have to do. That became fun to try and see how far we could push ourselves and then I thought it became something that could help the players after they leave. That discipline of trying to be in the absolute tip-top fitness, preparation and something you really have to go out and earn. Our players get up at 5:30 a.m. four days a week in the summer. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday our players are up at 5:30 in the morning for a 6 a.m. workout. It is taxing and it is tough and we hope that it instills toughness in our team. John Spurlock and Stephanie Tracey-Simmons, who was our strength coach that started this here, both of those people have been tremendously integral in our success and they invested a lot of themselves in the program and our players benefit from it. It’s something that we emphasize and something that we work on, not something I just push off to the side and say ‘this is something we have to do.’ They are a part of our staff and we have discussions, a plan and a way we go about it. I’m proud of how hard our players have worked over the last nine years. It’s been tough on them but we’ve gotten good results from it.”

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