Starting point guard Amber Smith will miss much of the season with a knee injury. Who will replace her? In years past, there were few options when a point guard went down at UK. This year there are many options. Crystal Riley, a junior transfer from Louisiana State, was the backup point guard last season. She knows the system and has experience running the team. She has fully healed from a stress fracture in her left foot that made her miss the final 10 games of the season. UK probably will use Riley interchangeably with freshman Jennifer O'Neill, a true point guard who is the school's first McDonald's All-American.
Another option Coach Matthew Mitchell used during the Cats' NCAA Tournament run last March is swing player A'dia Mathies, a sophomore who has proven to be good with the ball at crunch time.
Several of the Cats' other guards are excellent ballhandlers and probably will help out on an as-needed basis.
Without Smith, who will be Kentucky's vocal leader on the floor? That remains to be seen. Mitchell has challenged senior Victoria Dunlap and Mathies to become more vocal leaders on the floor. In the pre-season, the players said communication was something everyone on the team was working on.
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Mitchell also pointed out that Smith will be a de facto part of the coaching staff and a team leader even if she's not bouncing the ball.
"She wants to coach in college and this is great on-the-job training," he said. "This is no time for Amber to run and hide. She has to stay engaged because she's so important to this team."
Kentucky's up-tempo, in-your-face defense became its signature last season. Is the team planning to keep up the pace? Say "yes, yes, yes" three times fast. In fact, the players and coaches say the team's newcomers are well-suited to playing that style and may make UK even faster than last season.
When asked who the fastest player on the team is, Mitchell's eyes lit up. "Oh man, we've got a lot of fast ones," he said. Freshman Maegan Conwright is "really fast; A'dia's really fast; Crystal Riley's really fast," he said. "We've got a lot of fast players."
Players spend a lot of time at every practice working on the defensive fundamentals that made them so good at pressuring other teams last season. The newcomers seem to be buying in so far.
Can Kentucky win the Southeastern Conference? This season very well could come down to UK and Tennessee again. The Lady Vols were picked by the media to finish first, with the Cats second, in pre-season polling. Tennessee returns all of its players from last season's 32-3 team that won the SEC regular-season and conference titles.
The good news for Kentucky is that the teams' regular-season meeting is in Lexington. UK players have said they are excited for a rematch with the Lady Vols.
The pundits certainly think the Cats have a legitimate shot to make some noise on the national level, too; UK got top 15 pre-season rankings from The Associated Press (No. 9), Lindy's (No. 9), Athlon Sports (No. 11) and the Sporting News (No. 12).
Kentucky has an 18-game home win streak, the 10th-longest in the nation. Can the Cats keep that going? There are a lot more potential roadblocks to Memorial Coliseum perfection this season, and Mitchell has beefed up the caliber of home opponents.
Kentucky starts the season with Morehead State at Memorial on Friday, and NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen team Notre Dame is next on the home schedule (Nov. 21.) Other home hurdles include Middle Tennessee State on Dec. 29. Oh, and then nearly every SEC opponent.
But if UK can stay perfect at home again, it will be well-prepared for another deep run into the post-season.
The last time UK was in the NCAA Tournament (2005-06), it followed that up with a trip to the WNIT. How do the Cats avoid a similar letdown this season? The personnel, from coaches to players, is completely different than five seasons ago. But more importantly, there doesn't seem to be a "we arrived" mentality at the practice facility.
"We could settle for being happy with where we were," Dunlap said. "But I think we're looking forward to where we can be."
The Cats return Dunlap, one of the nation's top players, and Mathies, whom Mitchell thinks should be on those watch lists, too. Both players are humble by nature and set the tone for the rest of the team, including the highly rated recruiting class that will fortify the roster.
Mitchell said he makes it his job every day to make sure heads don't get too big, to "create an environment where humility and sacrifice are valued and rewarded."
There was a national buzz around point guard Jennifer O'Neill. Will she live up to the hype? O'Neill's teammates and coaches seem to think so. The point guard from the Bronx, N.Y., could be another weapon on a team loaded with them.
Mitchell likes her maturity and passion for the game.
"She loves basketball. She's a gym rat," he said. "She's in here all the time. It seems like it's her hobby."
O'Neill looks to score, too. She will make life difficult for defenses with her ability to get in the lane.
Mitchell says O'Neill needs to become as aggressive on defense as she is on offense, but most freshmen do.
Can Victoria Dunlap be SEC Player of the Year again? Dunlap isn't overly concerned with individual awards, but said she worked hard in the off-season to position herself to be among the conference's elite again. She spent a lot of time this summer improving her shooting range and ball-handling skills, which could make her a potential top-five WNBA Draft pick.
Dunlap even hinted that she may try to dunk in a game again (after barely missing last season) if the situation allows for it.
"I've been doing my calf raises every night," she said with a laugh.
What newcomers will have the most immediate impact? O'Neill will see more than her share of playing time and could be a key to a successful season, but UK took the biggest hit from graduation in the post spots.
Look for Nelson County's Samantha Drake to be an excellent running mate for Dunlap. Sarah Beth Barnette's outside shooting adds a new dimension down low.
In a system like UK's, fresh bodies are important, so it's likely that most (if not all) of the highly touted freshmen will see significant minutes this season and give the Cats lots of versatility.
We know about Mathies and Dunlap, but what about the other returning players? Who has the potential for a big season? Her teammates voted forward Brittany Henderson the player most likely to have a breakout season. The sophomore, who averaged 11 minutes a game last season, was impressive at the end of the season. The coaches like her work ethic and aggression down low.
Riley will have to be an impact player at point guard. Mitchell also expects big things from guards Keyla Snowden and Carly Morrow. Snowden, a junior, has improved her speed and agility and Morrow, a senior, had the best off-season of her career, Mitchell said.
(Home games in capital letters; all times Eastern)
Date Opponent TV/Time
Nov. 7 a-KENTUCKY WESLEYAN 2 p.m.
Nov. 12 MOREHEAD STATE 11 a.m.
Nov. 14 at Miami (Ohio) 2 p.m.
Nov. 21 NOTRE DAME (BBSN*/FS South) 1 p.m.
Nov. 26 b-vs. Murray State 8:30 p.m.
Nov. 27 b-vs. La.-Lafayette or Southern Miss 3/5:30 p.m.
Dec. 5 at Louisville 2 p.m.
Dec. 7 TENNESSEE TECH (BBSN*/FS South) 6 p.m.
Dec. 11 at Chattanooga 6 p.m.
Dec. 18 ALABAMA A&M 2 p.m.
Dec. 21 ARKANSAS PINE-BLUFF 7 p.m.
Dec. 29 MIDDLE TENNESSEE (BBSN*/FS South) 6 p.m.
Dec. 30 TENN.-MARTIN (BBSN*/FS South) 6 p.m.
Jan. 4 at Duke (ESPNU) 7 p.m.
Jan. 6 at Arkansas 8 p.m.
Jan. 9 GEORGIA (ESPNU) 2 p.m.
Jan. 13 SOUTH CAROLINA 7 p.m.
Jan. 16 MISSISSIPPI STATE (FS South) 1 p.m.
Jan. 20 at Florida 7 p.m.
Jan. 23 VANDERBILT (ESPNU) 4 p.m.
Jan. 27 at Mississippi (FS South) 9 p.m.
Jan. 30 at Alabama 3 p.m.
Feb. 3 AUBURN 7 p.m.
Feb. 7 TENNESSEE (ESPN2) 9 p.m.
Feb. 10 at South Carolina 7 p.m.
Feb. 13 LSU (ESPN2) 2:30 p.m.
Feb. 17 at Georgia (FS South) 7 p.m.
Feb. 20 at Vanderbilt (SEC Network) 2 p.m.
Feb. 24 ARKANSAS (BBSN*/FS South) 6 p.m.
Feb. 27 at Auburn (SEC Network) 2 p.m.
March 3-6 c-SEC Tournament TBA
a-exhibition; b-Lady Eagle Thanksgiving Classic at Hattiesburg, Miss.; c-at Nashville
*-Big Blue Sports Network (WKYT-27 in Lexington)