Cats' new tale to begin with DeMoss

Updated: November 11, 2003, 10:28 PM ET
By Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com

Mickie DeMoss was the nice one.

Mickie DeMoss
Mickie DeMoss reportedly turned down jobs at Texas A&M and the Indiana Fever before heading to Kentucky.
Whenever Pat Summitt would drop one of her trademark glares, DeMoss was there to smooth things over and supply the shoulder for some Lady Volunteer to lean on. Some might even have called it the Knoxville version of "good cop, bad cop."

Either way, it worked perfectly for them over the past 18 years as Tennessee attracted some of the nation's top talent, won an unprecedented six NCAA championships and more than 500 games.

Now, DeMoss is on her own, embarking on her first season with the Kentucky Wildcats.

DeMoss has been a head coach before. While at Florida from 1979-83, she was 45-68.

But the expectations are higher now.

DeMoss, hired in mid-March when Bernadette Maddox resigned with a 91-135 record in eight seasons, was brought on board to revitalize a program that was 26-57 over the past three years and hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999. She's expected to get the state of Kentucky as excited about women's basketball as it is about men's hoops.

That is a tall order, and DeMoss' success will depend on her recruiting ability, how quickly she adapts mentally to being the boss after so many seasons as an assistant, and how good of a job she did filling out her own staff.

Recruiting is the most vital element. At Tennessee, DeMoss was known as a recruiting guru. Players such as Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Tonya Edwards found their way to Knoxville in large part because of DeMoss. Summitt certainly sealed the deal, but DeMoss laid the ground work throughout the recruiting process.

The key, however, is whether DeMoss can recruit the same caliber of player to Kentucky that she continuously drew to Tennessee, the high-level athlete it takes to win SEC championships. Remember, too, that Louisville (where Tom Collen is in his first season) and Western Kentucky (15 NCAA Tournament appearances) -- two very respectable programs -- will be competing for the same recruits. And national recruiting is also extremely important because the state of Kentucky only produces so many top-tier recruits.

DeMoss, a former starting point guard for three seasons at Louisiana Tech, appears to have surrounded herself with a capable staff. Pam Stackhouse, an assistant at Purdue the past seven years, was part of the Boilermakers' NCAA title run in 1999 and runner-up finish in 2001, as well as several Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships.

Matthew Mitchell, who was an assistant and recruiter at Florida since 2000, will be responsible for coaching Kentucky's posts, which will also get a boost from DeMoss' own experience as Tennessee's post coach in recent years. DeMoss' third assistant, Niya Butts, was part of two NCAA championship seasons (1997 and '98). Years ago, DeMoss recruited Butts to Tennessee.

While DeMoss must learn to rely on and trust her assistants, she must also focus on the total program at Kentucky. She has to put on that management hat and keep the program moving in an upbeat and positive direction.

DeMoss is a very likeable person, and that worked very well for her at Tennessee. When a Lady Vol got down, DeMoss would saddle up with impeccable timing and calm the situation down. For as serious and straight-laced Summitt was, especially early on in her career, DeMoss was more fun, enjoyable and not afraid to share a laugh with the team. Now, DeMoss is going to need a little bit more separation from her players to command the respect a head coach needs.

Will DeMoss be successful at Kentucky? Only time will tell, but it would seem that DeMoss has learned enough in the past 20 years to make her more successful at Kentucky than she was at Florida. Attendance will be up, and DeMoss will make Kentucky a better, more consistent basketball team. Don't be surprised to see the Wildcats improve on their ninth-place finish and 4-10 record last season in the SEC. And expect the Wildcats -- who will probably finish closer to the middle of the pack in the league race -- to use a lot of the same tactics that made Tennessee successful: pressure defense, a focus on rebounding and high-percentage shots.

I've always believed you need to give a new coach four years -- long enough to recruit their own players and implement their own schemes -- to see what they can do with a program.

All indications are that DeMoss is an up-and-coming head coach, and there's no question that she knows the SEC inside and out. The buzzword is future.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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