UK Women's Basketball

UK women 10 questions

Matthew Mitchell enters his sixth year as UK's women's coach with fans' hopes running high for the program's first Final Four appearance.
Matthew Mitchell enters his sixth year as UK's women's coach with fans' hopes running high for the program's first Final Four appearance. Herald-Leader

1. Where did this season's "40 minutes" theme come from? What does it mean to Coach Matthew Mitchell?

To understand the theme, just look to last season's Connecticut game that would have propelled Kentucky to the Final Four for the first time in program history. UK competed with the Huskies for 20 minutes, but then "we got whipped really bad 13 points in that second 20 minutes," Mitchell said of the 80-65 loss. "That kind of spawned the idea that we have to be able to put it all together."

So 40 minutes means a full game, but it also means being willing to do the little things — focusing on every detail the rest of the year — that can make you a complete team for the 40 minutes of a game, he said.

2. Having almost everyone back from a team that won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title makes UK a favorite to repeat. Will the Cats be comfortable, knowing they'll get every team's best shot?

Being the hunted instead of the hunter isn't something Mitchell will even discuss with his team.

"We're always going to try to have the mentality of being the aggressor," he said.

The fact that UK is playing top-ranked, 2012 national champion Baylor on the Bears' home floor the second game of the season will be a quick reminder for his team that it hasn't arrived. Baylor, which finished 40-0 last season, is a team that has arrived.

It's also easy for Mitchell to get his team's attention when he reminds the players that last season's group only won the SEC crown by one game, and that UK did it by winning games by just a point or two.

3. Can Kentucky go undefeated at home for a second straight season?

Memorial Coliseum (and Rupp Arena for a game last season) have been good to UK the past few years. The Cats have gone 48-2 at home in the past three seasons, including going unbeaten for the second time in three years.

This season might be a bigger challenge, with home games looming against likely ranked foes DePaul, Texas A&M, Georgia and Tennessee, but Mitchell doesn't think it's an impossibility.

4. The Cats again have a game on the schedule at Rupp Arena (DePaul on Dec. 7). Is there a push to play more often at the downtown venue?

When Mitchell was hired, he phased out regularly playing games at Rupp, but after UK broke its women's basketball attendance record last season against Duke (14,508), he seems to have softened his stance. But don't look for more than one or two games there a season.

"If we get another big crowd, then I think one game a year down there can be useful for us," Mitchell said. "But until people are breaking windows to get into Memorial every night, you don't look at any more than one."

5. When a team has five McDonald's All-Americans and depth at every position, how do you find playing time for everyone?

It's a problem most coaches wouldn't mind being saddled with. UK has been deep before, but probably never as deep as this team at every position. And it's not just depth, it is "quality depth," Mitchell said. "There's not a big drop-off when somebody new comes into the game."

Mitchell has managed talent before and seems to recruit players who don't mind not taking 20-plus shots a game. Kentucky's aggressive defensive system means lots of rotation at every position to keep legs fresh.

Eleven players averaged double-figure minutes last season and none averaged more than 30 minutes, so Mitchell doesn't see playing time as a big issue.

That doesn't stop him from challenging this season's players to make sacrifices for the team on several levels, including playing time.

"If they're not willing to bring it every day, can they accept the role and be passed by? It will be very interesting to bring them together," he said. "It's not something that just happens or that we take for granted. To me, it's the most important job we have as coaches: to make them a team."

6. Could this Kentucky team win not only an SEC title, but also a national title?

Mitchell said he wouldn't have been able to keep a straight face a few years back if he'd tried to sell the idea that UK could win a national championship, but he's not laughing at the concept anymore.

"I think we have a chance, I do," he said a few weeks ago. "So I would not sit here and tell you we're going to the Final Four or that we'll talk about that ever on a day-to-day basis, but the players know I believe they can get there."

7. Who will be the floor general for this team; what will happen at the point guard spot?

Unlike a year or three ago, UK has options at point guard; none of the options is perfect right now, but things should work themselves out by the end of the season. Having a limited Amber Smith last season with her nagging injuries meant the Cats had to use other options. So Maegan Conwright became a viable point guard, and she has improved dramatically (especially her shooting) over the summer.

"She can really make plays; she just battles herself so much mentally," Mitchell said of the junior.

UK also has A'dia Mathies, who is able to play point guard, and Jennifer O'Neill, who sat out last season with an injury, but both are better at other spots.

It likely will be a season where Conwright and freshman Janee Thompson alternate at that position. Thompson, ranked the No. 6 high school point guard in the nation by at least one recruiting service last season, has been better than most freshmen this early in her career. The coaches like what she brings to the mix.

8. Does Kentucky have a fiery leader this season? Does it need to have a fiery leader to win?

UK has two seniors in Mathies and Brittany Henderson, and neither is known for her big mouth or aggressive demeanor. So leadership will have to come from different sources and most likely by committee.

"I don't know if we'll have one single person who's a real dynamic personality, but this is a group of people who are uniting forces who bring kids together," Mitchell theorized.

Several players came to mind for Mitchell when asked about team leadership, including juniors Kastine Evans, Conwright and Samarie Walker.

9. Is there another level for Mathies this season? How good can she be?

Mathies has been one of UK's most steady, consistent performers since she stepped on campus as a freshman out of Iroquois in Louisville. Consistently, she has averaged between 13-15 points a game, five or so rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals.

But is there another level for the guard who could leave UK as its second-leading scorer?

Mitchell thinks so.

He noted how with effort she went from averaging 29 percent from three-point range as a freshman to being one of UK's top long-range shooters (37.8 percent) last year season. He thinks Mathies could be a top-five WNBA Draft pick if she continues to work.

"A'dia could be one the best players in the country," he said. "She has every tool. There's no weakness in her game."

10. Is there a player who will surprise some people?

DeNesha Stallworth won't be on any pre-season ballots, mainly because the 6-foot-3 junior post player hasn't played in a year, but she likely will be in the running for the league's top players by late in the season, her coach said.

In her two seasons at California, Stallworth averaged 13.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 steals a game, and she's improved dramatically in the year she's been at UK.

"She's incredible," Mitchell said. "She's poised to have a breakout year, for people to say, 'She's one of the best players in this league.' That's what I think she's capable of."

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