It wasn’t that long ago when Bell County High School’s Maci Morris (pictured) was burning the nets as one of the state’s top players en route to becoming Kentucky’s “Miss Basketball” in 2015.
And now Morris, a 6-foot guard, is entering her third year at Kentucky after two productive seasons as a starter in helping the Wildcats to 25-8 and 22-11 records.
After UK lost a couple of stars in Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator to WNBA, coach Matthew Mitchell is expecting more production from three returning starters in Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Alyssa Rice.
Morris says she’s ready to assume more tasks and leadership for her team this season.
“I knew I would have to take on more responsibilities and become one of the leaders on the team losing Epps and Evelyn,” said Morris on Monday. “Being a junior and having to play as much as I did my first two years, I just have to use my experience to teach the younger players. We've (Rice, Murray and Morris) talked about being the leaders on the team and what we want to accomplish this season so it's our job to make sure to hold ourselves and the others accountable.”
Mitchell, now entering his 11th season at the Wildcat helm, marveled at Morris’ remarkable development as a player and leader since her arrival on campus.
“Maci’s a heck of an athlete, just a tremendous athlete,” said Mitchell recently. “Great balance, great speed, great first step. I mean, if you look at her highlights from last year and she’s in the open court, you know, it’s impressive. She really developed her game, not just pure ball handling, but using those to score, blow by people in the open court, just make some real athletic plays.
“(She is) stronger, more developed going into her junior year. Has made a huge jump from freshman to junior year and that’s a great sign, but incredible competitor, wants to win, loves Kentucky, loves her teammates, just somebody you’re glad is on your team. Shooting the ball great, moving better defensively than she ever has.
“So Maci has done a very good job to give herself an opportunity to have a great junior year, but she’ll have to go out and do it.”
Morris -- who comes from an athletic family with her dad, Lewis Morris, now the head basketball coach at Middlesboro High School -- is majoring in kinesiology and hopes to be a physician assistant.
Morris and Murray, a junior guard, are the only returning Kentucky players who averaged double-digit points last season. While Murray averaged 12.2 points (along with 4.9 rebounds and team-best 61 steals), Morris gunned in 11.8 points and led the Wildcats in three-point field goals made with 53, hitting 32.3 percent of the long downtown jumpers.
Another returning starter is Rice, a 6-3 versatile senior who has improved defensively. She averaged 21.8 minutes and 4.5 rebounds.
Mitchell, who has several promising newcomers, hints the Wildcats may change their game plan and return to up-tempo playing style.
“I believe the identity will be hustle, quickness, speed, athleticism, try to force the other team to be uncomfortable and make some mistakes,” he said. “I think that will be necessary with some inexperience, especially early on.”
Last season, the Wildcats finished with a No. 18 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Even better was UK’s No. 14 overall ranking in the final NCAA RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) report as it played the second-toughest schedule in the country.
And this season, Lindy’s college basketball yearbook has Kentucky No. 19 in a preseason Top 25 poll. A panel of SEC and national media last week picked Kentucky No. 6 in a preseason poll with favorite South Carolina, Mississippi State, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas A&M finishing ahead of the Cats in the conference race.
By the way, two of the 2017 NCAA Final Four participants -- national champion South Carolina and national runner-up Mississippi State -- will visit the Wildcats in the latter part of the season with the Gamecocks matchup (ESPNU) taking place on Sunday, Jan. 21 at Rupp Arena. In addition, two of UK’s biggest rivals, Louisville and Tennessee, will face Kentucky in Sunday matchups in December (both on SEC Network) with the UT contest at Rupp Arena. And all four opponents are considered preseason Top 15 teams this season.
Mitchell and his Cats will tip off the campaign on Friday night, Nov. 10 against Sacramento State at Memorial Coliseum (SEC Network Plus) as a part of the Matthew Mitchell Classic, a multi-team event.
Needless to say, it’s going to be fun to follow Mitchell and his club, and see how far they can go this winter. Can they make it to the Lexington Regional at Rupp Arena in late March?
Time will tell.
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You can pretty much say Kentucky’s John Calipari was the most popular attraction at last week’s SEC Basketball Media Day in Nashville. And his men’s team once again is favored to win the league title, according to a panel by the national and SEC media.
Reporters asked Calipari about his very undeveloped, but talented club, which is loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans.
“This is a young team,” he told the media. “I feel an anxiety because I want the individual players to play well. My hands aren’t on the panic button yet. My feet are on the panic button, but my hands are not there yet. We are really young.
“Anyone who has young players knows that it’s hard to help them create habits that are going to help them win. You can’t worry about eliminating other habits, forget it. Just create these new six or seven habits. But the only way it becomes a habit is you do it every day and are focused on it. It’s a process.”
Besides No. 1 Kentucky, the other projected top SEC teams are No. 2 Florida, No. 3 Texas A&M, No. 4 Alabama and No. 5 Missouri in the league race.
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The Big Blue Nation is hoping for a better ending this Saturday after a horrible weekend against Mississippi State as well as watching Kentucky drop to the heated rival Volunteers on regular basis for a long time -- 31 of the last 32 games.
The 5-2 Wildcats, who now have four winnable games left (out of remaining five), can clinch bowl eligibility with a victory over Tennessee.
The Vols are really struggling this season. They were knocked out in a blowout loss to top-ranked Alabama last Saturday. Just like Kentucky’s 45-7 setback to MSU.
Good news for UK is that Joshua Dobbs -- who quarterbacked UT to a 49-36 win over Kentucky in Knoxville last fall – is not around.
This week’s SEC statistics are showing that UT has the worst total offense in the league at No. 14 with Kentucky at No. 12. On total defense, Tennessee is slightly better at No. 10, just behind No. 9 Wildcats.
Looks like a close game on paper, huh? A fearless forecast: Kentucky by 3.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught,