Dancing with the stars

By Alex Forkner | @ForknerKyKernel

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Matthew Mitchell isn’t just a basketball coach — he’s lord of the dance.

At least that’s true at Big Blue Madness, where Mitchell has thrilled fans and his own players by showing off his skills during the team’s introduction.

Two years ago, he taught us how to Dougie. Last year, he delighted the 24,000 in attendance with a tribute to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, infused with a little John Wall swagger.

Speculation is rampant concerning Mitchell’s moves for this year’s Madness — the easy favorite is a take on the “Gangnam Style” craze currently sweeping planet Earth.

His compulsion to cut a rug may seem unorthodox for the head coach of a college basketball team, but who has more reason to dance than Mitchell?

Consider the program’s position when he was an assistant under Mickie DeMoss: In two years, the team’s record sat at a less-than-stellar 29-33 overall and 7-21 in SEC play.

However, in a sign of things to come, amid these seasons of turmoil, Mitchell managed to land a marquee recruiting class in 2004, ranked No. 6 by All-Star Girls Report.

Mitchell had already built a reputation as an ace recruiter during his stint at Florida, where he inked the ninth- and second-ranked recruiting classes in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Getting those types of classes at Kentucky was uncommon.

Mitchell later took the head coaching job at Morehead State, compiling a record of 30-29 overall and 24-16 in the Ohio Valley Conference in two years. Meanwhile, DeMoss led UK for two respectable seasons before resigning.

UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart didn’t need to look far for her replacement — a charismatic recruiting whiz with ties to the program resided only an hour away.

Mitchell’s first two years were rocky, barely finishing above .500 overall. But in his first year, Mitchell accomplished a winning SEC record, a feat the program had achieved twice before since joining the conference in 1982.

After posting another non-winning SEC record in 2008-09, the 23rd such season since joining the conference, Mitchell turned the culture of women’s basketball at UK on its head.

The team started playing an up-tempo style, relentlessly pressing opponents and gathering more turnovers than an Arby’s employee. Recruits started to notice and the roster became inundated with talent.

By the end of the 2009-10 season, UK had an overall record of 28-8 (11-5 SEC), and had advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, the program’s seventh appearance and the first time since 1982 the Cats had advanced past the second round.

The team finished 25-9 (11-5 SEC) in 2010-11 and was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by North Carolina in the second round.

Last season, Mitchell’s team attained the best season in the history of the program, finishing 28-7 and claiming a regular season SEC title, the first in nearly 30 years in the conference. Another run to the Elite Eight propelled the team toward a final ranking of No. 12 in the AP poll and No. 8 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches’ poll, the highest final AP ranking since finishing No. 11 in 1983 and the highest ever finish in the coaches’ poll.

UK has become nearly unbeatable at home, owning a 48-2 record when playing in Memorial Coliseum or Rupp Arena. Mitchell has been named SEC Coach of the Year twice in three years.

The program has the makings of a powerhouse under Mitchell — and the top-10 preseason rankings by Lindy’s Sports Magazine and Athlon Sports Magazine are evidence of Mitchell’s momentum.

Maybe that momentum carries over to the dance floor, where Mitchell can express his jubilation at the job he’s done thus far.

He’s turned a program that’s not used to dancing into yearly participants in the Big Dance.

Who knows? Maybe this year Mitchell will be dancing at center court in New Orleans while his team hoists a National Championship trophy.

But even if that’s not this team’s fate, it may one day be Mitchell’s.

At age 41, Mitchell’s got a lot of dancing left in him.