Sometimes the answers to the season's most pressing questions are sitting right next to you.
At least that's what Coach Matthew Mitchell is hoping as No. 7 Kentucky starts its quest for the school's first Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in 30-plus years on Friday in Duluth, Ga.
The coach is looking to the UK bench to reassert itself in time for post-season play.
"Our bench is critical for us to be the team that we want to be," he said on Tuesday.
It may have taken a late-season loss for Mitchell to fully realize that. Against a Louisiana State team that had dwindled to eight available players, Kentucky never was able to take advantage of its superior numbers to wear down the Tigers.
Instead, Mitchell himself used just eight players, with most of the minutes being spread among six of them.
So the coach decided to retool and reconfigure.
Before the Cats' trip to Mississippi, Mitchell met with his Wildcats reserves. He told them that no matter what was happening against the Rebels, his plan was to swap in five new players after the first four minutes of the game.
He told them to be ready. He saw a bench that was more electric at the start of the game and more focused on what was happening.
"It's a long season, and I just thought some of the kids had gotten discouraged (by decreased minutes)," he said. "So hopefully that sharpened them up a little bit."
It worked. Against Ole Miss, UK's second five came in and extended the Cats' advantage from 8-4 to 14-6.
"That gives us a lot of confidence in our team, especially knowing that we've got people who can back us up and people who are very talented and can come in and play minutes," junior guard Kastine Evans said.
Mitchell used the same early substitution pattern in the next game against a much bigger opponent: Tennessee.
He got the same result, and Kentucky's bench outscored the Lady Vols' backups 22-11.
"Our depth was quality, and I thought it was able to wear Tennessee down," Mitchell said after the win.
Kentucky's depth hasn't exactly been a state secret the past few seasons.
With few true stars on past teams, Mitchell used pace and pressure to get the best of opponents. Last season alone, UK's bench outscored opponents by 16 points a game.
That dynamic changed some this season with the addition of four McDonald's All-Americans to the lineup. During parts of this season, Mitchell started relying more heavily on the talented starting group and less on the bench.
UK's bench is scoring 10.6 fewer points this season than last. Four times, the bench has failed to crack double-figure scoring, something that never happened last season.
The coach needed only to look to his left and down at his stat sheets to see a trend, though. This season, UK is 20-0 when the bench outscores its opponent, including 10-1 in SEC play.
Mitchell didn't promise the wholesale substitutions would continue into post-season play, but the bench could become an advantage for Kentucky, which would need to win three games in 48 hours to win the SEC Tournament trophy.
"That (bench boost) could be a great thing for us in the tournament setting," Mitchell said. "We just need to make sure that we get production out of that group. ... If they can do that, that would be a great pattern to get into."
■ The pre-game Cat Walk, including the pep band and cheerleaders, is scheduled for Friday at 3:45 p.m. as UK leaves its hotel for the arena. Fans can join in at the Holiday Inn Gwinnett Center at 6310 Sugarloaf Parkway.
■ Eight-time NCAA champion gymnast Jenny Hansen will serve as the Cats' SEC Tournament Legend in this season's 2013 Class of Women's Legends. She will be honored at halftime of UK's quarterfinal game Friday.
No. 7 Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt
When: 6 p.m.
What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals
Where: The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.
TV: Fox Sports South
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 25-4, Vanderbilt 20-10
Series: Vanderbilt leads 27-18
Last meeting: Kentucky won 75-53 on Feb. 10 at Nashville
Kentucky (25-4, 13-3)
(Home games in capital letters; all times Eastern and p.m.)
Date Opponent Result
Nov. 5 x-Bellarmine W, 113-33
Nov. 10 Delaware State W, 90-50
Nov. 13 at Baylor L, 85-51
Nov. 17 HIGH POINT W, 80-46
Nov. 23 MOREHEAD STATE W, 73-37
Nov. 25 USC UPSTATE W, 100-34
Nov. 28 MIAMI (OHIO) W, 92-53
Dec. 2 at Louisville W, 48-47
Dec. 7 a-DEPAUL W, 96-64
Dec. 9 MIDDLE TENNESSEE W, 68-46
Dec. 18 at Pepperdine W, 80-62
Dec. 21 at UC Santa Barbara W, 66-38
Dec. 28 ALCORN STATE W, 90-23
Dec. 30 MARIST W, 78-56
Jan. 1 FLORIDA W, 76-69
Jan. 6 at Alabama W, 87-70
Jan. 10 Texas A&M W, 65-62
Jan. 13 at Missouri W, 69-43
Jan. 17 MISSISSIPPI STATE W, 100-47
Jan. 20 AUBURN W, 97-53
Jan. 24 at South Carolina L, 55-50
Jan. 27 LOUISIANA STATE W, 73-60
Feb. 3 GEORGIA L, 75-71
Feb. 7 at Arkansas W, 80-74 (OT)
Feb. 10 at Vanderbilt W, 75-53
Feb. 14 SOUTH CAROLINA W, 78-74
Feb. 18 at Texas A&M W, 70-66
Feb. 24 at Louisiana State L, 77-72
Feb. 28 at Mississippi W, 90-65
March 3 TENNESSEE W, 78-65
Date Opponent TV time
March 8 Vanderbilt-b FSS 6
x-exhibition; a-at Rupp Arena; b-SEC Tournament at Duluth, Ga.
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com