A'dia Mathies doesn't even blink when asked the goal for the Kentucky women's basketball team in 2012-13.
"Definitely, Final Four or bust," says the UK star senior guard.
For a program that had never won NCAA Tournament games in back-to-back seasons until 2009-10 and 2010-11, those are gaudy expectations. But in a tribute to the building effort done by Matthew Mitchell and Co., they are also realistic.
In two of the past three seasons, Kentucky has clawed its way to NCAA Tournament regional finals — one scant victory from the college hoops promised land.
Twice, the Cats have fallen short.
In 2010, Oklahoma denied UK a trip to the national semifinals with an 88-68 pasting. Last season, women's basketball royalty Connecticut again ended Kentucky's quest, 80-65, one victory from the Final Four.
On paper, Kentucky looks primed in 2012-13 to break through the "regional finals ceiling."
The Wildcats have seven of their eight top scorers back from a 28-7 team that claimed the Southeastern Conference regular-season crown.
That includes Mathies, the reigning SEC Player of the Year; Bria Goss, last season's SEC Freshman of the Year; and junior forward Samarie Walker, a McDonald's All-American who made her Kentucky debut in the second semester last season after transferring from UConn.
To that nucleus, Mitchell and staff will add three more McDonald's All-Americans who did not play for Kentucky last year — center DeNesha Stallworth, a junior transfer who was a standout at California of the Pac-12; sophomore guard Jennifer O'Neill, who lost last season to a foot injury; and true freshman point guard Janee Thompson.
After a recent Kentucky practice, Mitchell joked that "I think you can see we have a chance to be pretty good if the coach doesn't screw it up."
With point guards Amber Smith and Crystal Riley lost to graduation, one decision Mitchell has to make is who will be his team's quarterback(s) this year. Two seasons ago, when Smith was lost to injury, Mathies wound up having to run point. She did it well, but Mitchell hopes that junior Maegan Conwright and Chicago product Thompson, ranked the number six high school point guard in the country last season by ESPN.com, can handle the job this season.
"It sure would be nice to have (Mathies) on one wing and Bria Goss on the other," Mitchell said. "That's a pretty lethal combination."
Obviously, to make a Final Four, one is likely to need to defeat an elite program in the NCAA tourney round of eight. Against both Oklahoma in 2010 and UConn last season, Kentucky — which has built its success on full-court pressure defense and frenetic-paced offense — struggled to score in the half-court.
In the loss to Oklahoma, then-UK star Victoria Dunlap hit 10 of 18 field goals and scored 31 points; the rest of the Kentucky roster shot 13-for-52.
Last season against Connecticut, the Wildcats went 19-for-62.
The big difference between Kentucky then and UK in the coming season, Mathies thinks, is that Mitchell and staff have assembled a bevy of capable post scorers in Stallworth (6-3), Walker (6-1), Samantha Drake (6-3) and Azia Bishop (6-3).
"We have more collective post players who can score," Mathies said. "I think we've finally got that post presence from different players that we needed."
UK will test itself against a non-conference schedule that includes defending national champ Baylor plus Big East powers Louisville and DePaul. The always-challenging SEC only got stronger with the addition of Texas A&M, which won the title in 2010.
With a junior-heavy roster, Kentucky appears to have a prime two-year window in which to become a Final Four team, perhaps even the national champion.
A senior, Mathies understandably wants the breakthrough now.
"It's been our goal since we lost last year to Connecticut," she says, "to get to the Final Four in New Orleans."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com