Pressure defense remains Cats' identity

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 28, 2010 

This summer Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell went to camps and clinics around the country.

The first questions were always about UK's aggressive, speedy defense.

They always started with, "your defense this ... " or "your defense that ... "

Mitchell was quick to correct.

"It really wasn't mine," he would say. "It was those players."

The defense that led UK to the school's first Elite Eight last season, that helped UK finish second in the Southeastern Conference, that wreaked havoc from end line to end line wasn't anything fancy.

"We're really not doing anything complicated or new or innovative, it's just that that team decided they were going to do work every single day," Mitchell said.

What became UK's signature last season was created out of necessity after the Cats discovered they were a group of small, fast players.

"It wasn't a part of some grandmaster scheme," Mitchell said this summer.

But at his annual Media Day in front of a noticeably larger group of reporters, Mitchell said defense could be the team's signature again if the players are willing to put in the work.

That remains to be seen with six newcomers added to a roster of strong returning players including SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap and SEC Freshman of the Year in A'dia Mathies.

Mitchell and the players said they think they have the personnel to perhaps play more aggressively and up-tempo than before.

"As a team, we're faster, deeper and more athletic than we were last year," Dunlap said. "We could do a lot if we just get everyone to play together."

That happened last year when Kentucky was 10th best in the nation in steals, averaging 11.6 a game. The Cats, who forced an average of 22.9 miscues a game, had the third-best turnover margin in the country.

But not every team can play that way, Mitchell said.

"If you don't have a group of kids who want to sacrifice for each other, you look silly trying to play that way," Mitchell said. "It's hard day after day to do it, but it's worked for us."

When asked to elaborate, Mitchell talked a lot about the price a player has to pay to play that style.

"The price is you have to become very in tune with the defensive end of the floor; you have to be in the best shape of your life and do it every day," he said.

Guard Crystal Riley laughed when asked about the cost of playing good defense.

"All you need to know is we want to get in the cold tub after one-a-days," she said. "When we get to two-a-days, it's pretty rough. It's really rough."

But she said it's worth the sacrifice.

Mathies did, too.

The guard who averaged 2.6 steals a game last year said the team has to stay hungry and humble when it starts the season Nov. 12 against Morehead State.

"We're going to have to be even better than we were last year," she said. "We are doing things even more intense and play more aggressive."

Mitchell has them playing that way in practice.

He'd love to see last season's signature become part of this season's permanent record.

The coach doesn't want the team thinking about potential honors or worrying about how far it can go.

He has them focusing on other things.

"They need to be thinking in practice how am I going to get my next breath? How am I going to get through this next drill? How am I going to earn some playing time?" he said.

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