10 questions about the UK women

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 4, 2013 

UK Coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team went 30-6 last season, said the Cats are working hard to improve their offense.

1. Could Kentucky win a Southeastern Conference and/or national title with this group?

Coach Matthew Mitchell isn't afraid to say it and he's not afraid to say it often: This team has the pieces to not only get to the Final Four, but to win the whole thing. But a lot of work needs to be done to get there.

UK has seven McDonald's All-Americans and 10 players returning from an Elite Eight squad, which shows loads of upside despite losing A'dia Mathies, the program's second all-time leading scorer.

"If this team will do their best, they can win it and they can get to a Final Four," he said in mid-October. "I'm waiting and I'm hoping. We're working every day in recruiting to get a team that it doesn't matter if you do your best, you're just so talented you can get there. But we're just not there yet. We have enough to get there, but we have to do the things that will be necessary for us to make it happen."

Mitchell said UK's opportunity to get to the Final Four last season wasn't lost in the Connecticut game in the Elite Eight, it was decided when the Cats lost on the road to LSU and South Carolina, likely costing themselves a No. 1 seed.

So the coach said the primary focus is to get better each day and try to win the games UK is supposed to win. Then things like SEC titles, Final Four trips and NCAA championships will come.

2. Does he ever ponder an undefeated 40-0 season, like his coaching counterpart John Calipari has this pre-season?

"Yeah, um, nooooo. I'm not there. Nope. Not there," was Mitchell's reply with a giant smile on his face as he shook his head from side to side.

But his face took on a more serious look when asked about UK perhaps going undefeated in conference (the schedule includes big road games at Tennessee and Texas A&M, among others). There isn't a game on Kentucky's schedule this season where the team is wondering how it could win (see Baylor loss last season).

But he'd prefer for the team to shoot for the school's first No. 1 seed instead of dreaming of unbeaten seasons.

3. Will Kentucky be better in its half-court offense, which has become an Achilles' heel for the team in important games down the stretch?

Kentucky hasn't struggled to score points the past few seasons, averaging 73.5 points a game since 2009, but the Cats haven't always been able to score when a bulk of those points didn't come easily in transition. Mitchell said the team worked almost exclusively on offense this summer, trying to get better in the half-court and clean up some things in transition.

"Our offensive execution got better last year; it needs to get better again this year," he said. "So we'll just keep plugging away."

Mitchell said he doesn't feel like Kentucky's offense was bad last season, but he has seen improvement on the offensive end since UK devoted so much time to it. "I just think it's those little, fine, little bitty things you can try to identify that can make the difference from an Elite Eight to a Final Four," he said.

4. Speaking of the Final Four, which UK has fallen a game short of three of the past four seasons, does the coach get tired of people asking him when the Cats will break through?

Mitchell said he likes to think back to nearly 10 years ago when he started at UK on Mickie DeMoss's staff and imagine the former coach's face if someone had told her there would be multiple "empty trips" to the Elite Eight.

"The things that are happening here have never happened ever, and so it's just all a process of getting there, and we'll get there," he said.

As for those questions about the Final Four?

"I don't get tired of it at all. I love it. I love the fact that we can even sit here with a straight face and even talk about it even being a possibility."

5. If the Cats focused so much on offense, will they still be as effective on defense?

A few seasons ago, Mitchell and staff branded UK's defense as "40 minutes of dread" after Nolan Richardson's old "40 minutes of hell" at Arkansas.

That defensive intensity won't change, Mitchell hopes. He said many take for granted that UK's defense will be intense and chaos-inducing just because of the name on the front of the jersey and the reputation associated with it now, but this team will have to work like the others to create the havoc.

UK returns a solid nucleus of players, including steals, rebounds and blocks leader Samarie Walker. The Cats' returnees are proud of their defensive reputation, and likely won't let it evaporate.

6. A'dia Mathies was known for making clutch plays in the final seconds of games. Is there a new go-to player for Kentucky this season?

When asked if he had a player like Mathies — who had more than three different game-winning plays in her Kentucky career, and hit nearly 50 percent of her shots and 72 percent of her free throws in the final five minutes of games — Mitchell smiled.

"Yeah," he said.

Oh, OK.

Who is it?

"There are a bunch of them," Mitchell said. "That will all sort itself out. You'll start to see who wants the ball at the end."

When pressed more, Mitchell said that when UK signed Mathies, it hadn't signed a lot of players like her who were comfortable in a starring role and could create their own shots.

"Over the last four years, three years of recruiting, we've started to have more people capable of doing that," Mitchell said. "So there's a lot of people who could do it. We don't know going into the season, but we'll get that figured out. There are a lot of candidates."

7. Will new rules, like the addition of a 10-second backcourt violation, help or hurt Kentucky this season?

The women's game caught up with the men's game with several rules changes this season, including adding a 10-second backcourt violation. As a team that forced 23.7 turnovers a game on average last season, will this mean even more opponent miscues against the pressure?

Maybe not.

"We played so many teams that made so many poor decisions against the press," Mitchell said. "Now I wonder if it forces you to practice against it more and work on it more."

In a crazy way, teams might become better against the press because they know it's coming and there's so little time to get the ball across the mid-court line. The new rule doesn't change anything for UK offensively. The Cats' goal is to get the ball up the floor in 2.5 seconds or fewer.

8. UK will face Duke in Rupp Arena on Dec. 22. Has there been any discussion about moving more games to the downtown venue?

Not anytime soon. Until there are 2,000-3,000 people standing outside in the cold without tickets trying to get into games in Memorial Coliseum, Mitchell doesn't see a need to move away from the place where UK has gone 64-3 in the past four seasons.

Mitchell isn't opposed to playing another game or two in Rupp if the Cats can sell out a game at the 23,000-seat venue. He's hoping they'll do that against Duke, a likely top 10 opponent.

"I just think that you have to be real thoughtful," he said of moving games to Rupp. "Some things you need to speed up and go faster on and see what happens afterward, but I think we've done a very good job of building a home-court advantage" in Memorial Coliseum.

The coach also is hopeful that UK will be a part of another attendance record on Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas, when the Cats play Baylor as a part of a men's/women's doubleheader at AT&T Stadium. The single-game record is 24,653 when Connecticut played at Tennessee in 2006.

9. Kentucky has a school-record seven McDonald's All-Americans on the team. Does Mitchell worry about egos, chemistry and finding minutes for everyone?

UK's coaches never worry about playing time, saying the players are in charge of determining how much they play with how well they play on the floor. In three of the past four years, UK has had 11 players average in double-figure minutes playing the up-tempo style.

When Mitchell worries about team chemistry, it's not because of egos or disputes over minutes.

"Are they going to care about each other enough to practice hard enough and to do the right things off the court?" he said. "That's what I worry about with team chemistry."

10. Is there a player who might surprise some people this season?

Mitchell said the goal of the off-season is for every player to improve, and he's definitely seen that two weeks into practice.

"You could start naming them and all of them have made some improvements," he said.

But when pressed, Mitchell said senior guard Kastine Evans has made a "major jump," building on the player whose three-pointer was a dagger in UK's Sweet 16 win over Delaware last season. He also mentioned sophomore guard Janee Thompson as looking "very different right now." He's been pleased with senior post players Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth as well as junior guard Bria Goss, who was UK's top bench player last season.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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