1. The year after Angel McCoughtry graduated, Louisville went 14-18. Can Kentucky better survive the loss of its graduated star, Victoria Dunlap? The likely answer is yes. Part of Louisville's problem in the first season after McCoughtry took the Cardinals to the national title game in 2009 was that the U of L roster was decimated by injuries. Assuming that doesn't happen to Kentucky, the Cats on paper appear to have a roster talented enough to take the UK program to the NCAA Tournament for a third year in a row for the first time in school history.
Which is not to say replacing your school's second all-time scorer and rebounder will be easy.
"I think, as a group, we'll be able to handle this," says Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell. "Certainly, I don't see anybody right now as just one single player replacing Victoria one-for-one. I do think as a group we can get that done. One thing that is comforting, we return a lot of talent. We are probably deeper, talent-wise, than we have been in the five years I've been the coach."
2. Is Connecticut transfer Samarie Walker "the next Dunlap?" Maybe eventually. This season, the 6-foot-1 forward won't even be eligible until Kentucky plays at Notre Dame on Dec. 18. No matter how talented Walker, a 2010 McDonald's All-American, is, a sophomore transfer isn't going to be as productive as Dunlap was in her third and fourth years in the Kentucky program.
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Mitchell says Walker is a person who puts a lot of pressure on herself.
"I think it is almost a blessing for her that she will be able to come in in the second third of the season (after having) a chance to watch us and watch how we do things," Mitchell said. "Talent-wise, there is no question she can be a huge boost to our program and really help us a lot."
3. Is Amber Smith all the way back from the knee injury that knocked her out for all of last season? Physically, Mitchell says the answer is yes. "The knee is not swelling, she does not have pain in the knee. She is 100 percent healthy physically," he said.
Psychologically, Smith, like almost everyone who has ever returned from an ACL tear and the surgery to fix it, has to learn to trust her repaired knee.
"You almost have to get tough on them, tough love," Mitchell said of players returning from ACL injuries. "You just tell them, 'Listen, you're not going to play if you don't trust yourself, go out there and turn it loose.'
"Amber had some rough days (early in practice). We got on her pretty hard. It was necessary. She's bounced back."
Mitchell thinks that, once she plays a few games, the senior point guard will shake off the rust "and you'll see the old Amber back."
4. With Dunlap gone, is A'dia Mathies ready to step up and become Kentucky's full-fledged star? For the first two years of her Kentucky career, Mathies was Robin to Dunlap's Batman. Now, the Louisville Iroquois product has a chance to be UK's designated star.
"It's realistic, it's definitely realistic because she is so talented," Mitchell said.
The UK coach says the back injury that bothered Mathies down the stretch last season is in the rear-view mirror for the 5-foot-9 junior. With Smith back, Mathies won't have to play point guard as she did during the second half of last year.
Says Mitchell: "A'dia's playing great. She's strong. She got stronger in the off-season. She's in tremendous shape right now. I'm looking for a really good year out of A'dia."
5. How big an impact can McDonald's All-American Bria Goss have as a true freshman? For the second season in a row, Kentucky signed a player who played in the McDonald's All-American Game. Last year, it was Jennifer O'Neill. This year, it is Goss, a 5-foot-10 guard from Indianapolis who was Indiana's 2011 Miss Basketball.
How much can she contribute right away?
"She looks really good," Mitchell said. "She's a tremendous shooter, plays hard on the defensive end and is not your typical All-America type attitude-wise. She's very humble, very in tune with what her teammates need. We're tickled to death with how Bria is playing right now."
6. With what appears to be 14 legitimately talented players, can Mitchell keep everyone happy and contributing? Kentucky may not have a full-fledged star in the mold of Dunlap, but on paper the Cats appear to go 14 deep with quality basketball players. That's a good "problem" to have, but it also creates challenges for a coach in terms of defining roles among so many players and keeping everyone content with playing time.
"Boy, that's a challenge. I will be honest with you, I will be dealing with that for the first time in my career," Mitchell said. "We want to really try to put Kentucky first and try to put any personal goals or statistical goals in the background.
"The practice court will help us sort some of this out. There is a lot of depth here. There is no question, we will definitely try to turn the tempo up even higher."
7. Is UK closing the gap on Tennessee in the SEC? In the last two seasons, Tennessee finished first in the league, Kentucky second. In the last two seasons, Tennessee finished first in the SEC Tournament, Kentucky second.
So it's clear what the next step is if UK is to continue to climb the ladder.
This season, the Lady Vols have four of their top five scorers back from last year's 34-3 team. UT also has signed two McDonald's All-Americans. Tennessee will also, presumably, have extra motivation to play for iconic Coach Pat Summitt, who revealed over the summer she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
With Dunlap gone, it figures to be tough for Kentucky to surpass UT this winter.
Over the long run, however, UK does seem to be doing what it needs to in becoming a greater threat to the SEC's women's basketball dynasty. Counting transfers Walker and DeNesha Stallworth (a 6-3 center who left California after two seasons and is sitting out this season), Mitchell has added four McDonald's All-Americans to his program in the past two years. Kentucky is also recruiting more size, the lack of which has been a glaring disadvantage in head-to-head matchups with UT the past two seasons.
"The way you gain ground on them is you sign more talented players," Mitchell says. "Then you get those players to work harder than they have ever worked in their lives. It's easy to talk about that. It's very difficult to actually get all that in place.
"But there's no question, (catching Tennessee) is our goal. We've finished second the last two years, but they have continued to be firmly in first place. We need to chase them down. That's definitely something that motivates us."
8. With Duke coming to Rupp Arena on Dec. 8, can the Kentucky women sell out the 23,000-seat facility for the first time? The largest crowd ever to see the UK women play in Rupp is the 13,689 who saw Kentucky upset No. 1 Tennessee in 2006. Obviously, it's going to take about 10,000 more than that to sell out the old barn when the Dookies visit.
Mitchell sees the prospect of selling out Rupp as a motivational prospect to use with his players.
"We have a bunch of opportunities before that game to create some excitement by the way we play," he said. "I think, regardless of what happens, our fans have gotten to the point where they support us so strongly and they are so loyal, we will have a great crowd down at Rupp Arena.
"It would be very exciting to sell that thing out. And I think our players will have the biggest impact on that. If they play really hard and well and build some excitement, we've got some time to get (a sellout) done. I think we have a chance to do it."
9. The three-point line in women's basketball moves from a distance of 19 feet, nine inches, to 20 feet, nine inches for this season. How will UK be affected? Not much, Mitchell thinks.
"Most of our kids that shoot a lot of threes have the range" for the deeper line, the UK coach says. "Keyla (Snowden) has real deep range. A'dia (Mathies) is strong and has deep range. Bernisha (Pinkett) has pretty deep range. I don't think it is going to affect us very much."
10. Two years ago, Kentucky put a 101-67 smack-down on Louisville. Last year, U of L returned the favor, 78-52. Will somebody get hammered again when it's Cats vs. Cards on Dec. 4? It would be nice to see our state's marquee college sports rivalry actually yield a close women's game. There hasn't been a UK-U of L contest decided by single digits in the last four seasons.
"At some point, it's got to settle down and we have some normal-type games," Mitchell said. "They have a really good team. I think we have a chance to have a good team. So if you see (another blowout), I'd be really shocked."