Kentucky could have started the season with a creampuff or a cupcake.
But Coach Matthew Mitchell knows the road to a Final Four isn't a game of Candyland, so he didn't want to start the season playing that way.
Instead his Cats, ranked No. 7 in the pre-season, are beginning their quest on the court of a post-season tournament regular in what is sure to be a small, but hostile environment.
Knowing that UK's first opponent is going to be Marist, which has been to the NCAA Tournament nine straight years, helped make pre-season practices a little more focused.
"The sense of urgency to get prepared has been different," Mitchell said on Friday. "If we don't talk to each other and if we don't play with tremendous defensive fundamentals and if we don't really have a sharp mental focus then it will be trouble."
The Cats, who advanced to their third NCAA Tournament Elite Eight in four seasons, had a slim 40-32 lead at halftime when the two teams met last season at Memorial Coliseum.
The Red Foxes shot a blazing 56.5 percent from the field in the first half.
This game, part of a two-game season-opening road swing including a game at Wagner on Sunday, will be a "terrific measuring stick," Mitchell said.
"Well-coached team," he said of Marist in October. "Very hostile environment. It will be sold out. ... Very well-equipped program to go against pressure. They're not going to beat themselves. Very difficult first game. I love that."
Mitchell's players said they liked the idea of being pushed early.
"It will be a really good test for us and a win that we will definitely want later in the season," senior guard Kastine Evans said.
Like Kentucky, Marist returns four starters and several key role players from last year's team, which eventually fell 78-56 at Memorial Coliseum last December.
In that game, UK was able to use its signature pressure to force the Red Foxes into 27 turnovers and turn them into 35 points.
A big game on the road to open the season will hopefully set tones of toughness and togetherness, the players and their coach said.
"We could be here in Memorial Coliseum and playing a team that is not of the quality or caliber of Marist and not be nearly as challenged," Mitchell said. "It will do nothing but benefit our team down the road. I'm excited about the opportunity and we'll have to play well to win."
Hoops vs. hunger
Marist Coach Brian Giorgis, a good friend of Mitchell's, has dedicated this season to fighting hunger in the Red Foxes' Hudson River Valley backyard.
Giorgis has pledged to donate a dime for each person who attends a women's basketball home game this season.
UK's Mitchell agreed to match Giorgis' donation in the season opener at McCann Arena (3,200).
"It's an issue in the Hudson Valley and in the Bluegrass," said Mitchell, a regular speaker at God's Pantry fundraisers each year. "It's an issue we are aware of and we want to bring awareness to."
Kentucky at Marist
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Poughkeepsie, N.J.
Radio: WWTF-AM 1580
NO. 7 KENTUCKY
Starters — Bria Goss, 5-10, Jr., G; Kastine Evans, 5-9, Sr.; Janee Thompson, 5-6, So., PG; (10.2 ppg; 2.3 rpg, 2.7 apg); Samarie Walker, 6-1, Sr., F; DeNesha Stallworth, 6-3, Sr., F
Key reserves — Jennifer O'Neill, 5-6, Jr., G; Azia Bishop, 6-3, Jr., F; Linnae Harper, 5-8, Fr., G; Makayla Epps, 5-10, Fr., G; Bernisha Pinkett, 5-7, Jr., G; Jalleah Sydney, 6-2, Jr.; Samantha Drake, 6-3, Sr., F
Starters — Sydney Coffey, 6-0, So., G; Casey Dulin, 5-10, Sr., G; Emma O'Connor, 6-0, Sr., F; Leanne Ockenden, 5-10, Sr., G; Madeline Blais, 6-1, So., F/G
Key reserves — Natalie Gomez-Martinez, 5-7, Jr., G; Eileen Van Horn, 5-8, So., G; Bri Holmes, 5-6, Jr., G; Maggie Gallagher, 5-9, Jr., G; Delaney Hollenbeck, 6-5, Fr., C; Katharine Fogarty, 6-2, Fr., F; Tori Jarosz, 6-3, Jr., F/C; Brittni Lai, 5-6, Fr., G; Sydnie Rosales, 5-9, Fr., G; Abbey Timpano, 5-2, Fr., G