1. With most of the key returning players being guards, is it possible Kentucky will play a four- or five-guard lineup this season?
It's more than possible; it's likely. Coach Matthew Mitchell wants to go back to the identity that made Kentucky among the nation's elite in the previous five seasons, which involved wreaking havoc on opponents and making them as uncomfortable as possible. With Kentucky's top returning players — Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Janee Thomspon, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper — all being guards, look for the Cats to go small and quick again. Unless freshmen post players Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice come along quickly, look for UK to play four guards on a regular basis. But Mitchell expects the light will come on quickly for those three and UK is ready. "We've thrown the ball in more through the first 13 practices than we've thrown the ball in most all last year," he said.
2. How productive will UK's frontcourt be with the graduation of longtime starters Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth?
The Cats will have to replace roughly a quarter of their points and 34 percent of their rebounds which came from fifth-year seniors Walker and Stallworth. The duo also combined for 85 steals and 53 blocked shots last season. Kentucky's going to have to find another way to compete with bigger teams, especially while true freshman forwards Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice get more comfortable in their roles. Of the two, Jennings is more versatile offensively, but Rice is a bigger body that can score around the basket. Kentucky also returns leading shot blocker Azia Bishop, who averaged 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game last season, as well as role players like Jelleah Sidney, who could be looked to for increased production down low.
3. Will Kentucky be as productive offensively as it was last season?
The Cats were more effective in the half court last season, shooting their highest field goal percentage (43.4) and three-point field goal percentage (34) in the past five seasons. They averaged 5.9 more points per game than they did the season before, but they also allowed 10.6 more points to opponents. That's the kind of fuzzy math that can drive a coach crazy, so Mitchell is going back to his aggressive defensive style, which means an intense focus on the details of pressure-packed on-ball defense. That also might mean a less attractive offense while UK gets back to its old form.
"If we have to come along a little bit slower offensively, that's how it will go," Mitchell said. "It may take us a while to kind of get the intricacies of the offense." The coach did note that the Cats have plenty of players that can create their own shots and will be leaned on until UK's team offense is where it needs to be.
4. What will be the team's identity?
In a word? Aggressive. In three words? Toughness, disruption, speed. Because of injuries and other unexpected problems, Kentucky got away from the "40 minutes of dread" that it became so well known for nationally. That is what Mitchell is gearing up his team to be again this season. Practices are broken down into three segments, all geared toward those three concepts. "No matter who has the ball, we want to be the aggressor," Mitchell said. "We want to be disruptive. If we're playing zone defense, we want it to be an aggressive zone. If we're playing man, we want it to be aggressive."
5. What player has made the biggest leap in the offseason?
Without hesitation, Mitchell has an answer: "Epps. Unbelievable. You won't recognize her. You've never seen her like this."
Kentucky's sophomore swing player had a season of turmoil with normal freshman growing pains and learning curves before being derailed by a car accident early in the season that caused her to walk around in a daze for several weeks.
Epps, the Miss Basketball from Marion County, has emerged as a key player in the offseason and will play anywhere from point guard to power forward for Kentucky this season.
"Kid can go," Mitchell said of Epps, who averaged 4.6 points a game last season. "That's the person who jumps out at you."
6. What kind of transition difficulties will there be as Mitchell breaks in three brand new assistant coaches?
Disappointed in how a season with high expectations finished for Kentucky, by being throttled by Baylor in the Sweet 16, Mitchell did not renew the contracts of assistant coaches Shalon Pillow and Jeff House. Later, a third assistant, Danielle Santos, parted ways with the Cats. Mitchell took his time and hired three new assistant coaches that he thought would help get Kentucky to the next level in Christian Stefanopoulos, Adeniyi Amadou and Tamika Williams. The Cats coach admitted there will be a transition period for him and them. "Although they don't know everything that's in my mind, there is still great stuff happening and the players have responded with some really good performances," Mitchell said. "It's uncharted waters for me, but it's what had to happen."
7. What will each assistant coach's responsibility be?
Stefanopoulos, a former assistant coach under Mitchell at Morehead State and a former video coordinator at UK, will coach guards and serve as recruiting coordinator. Amadou, who was at Dayton, will work with post players and is director of player development. Williams, a former standout at Connecticut, also will work with post players and be the team's academic coordinator.
But the key thing Mitchell was looking for when he hired the three of them was the ability to connect with players and recruit top talent to Kentucky. "For me at this stage of the game, I needed three high level, enthusiastic recruiters who also are competent on the basketball court," he said. "The kids deserve a great experience on the court. The program deserves recruiters who can bring great kids in and that's what we got."
8. Who will be the team's vocal leader?
Kentucky has four seniors on the roster in Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Jelleah Sidney and Azia Bishop, but none of them is known for being an aggressive leader. Goss has worked to become that type of leader, her coach said. She will be counted on with junior point guard Janee Thompson to move the team in the right direction.
"It's a difficult question to answer," Mitchell said of leadership. "Our team personality is really no one bull-by-the-horns kind of person, combative, in your face. We have a lot of people who care about each other."
9. Kentucky has fallen in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game four of the past five seasons. Is this the season they break through and win one?
It will be a tall task for the Cats, who return three of their top five scorers, including their leading scorer, but no true post presence. The three SEC teams rated ahead of the Cats in the preseason, defending regular-season champ South Carolina, defending tournament champ Tennessee and Texas A&M all have strong, imposing frontcourts. Kentucky will play a home-and-away with the Lady Vols and the Gamecocks this season, so it will be a tough road if UK wants to win any kind of league championship. But stranger things have happened, just ask the 2012 regular-season champion Cats or the 2010 team that was picked to finish 11th in the league and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight.
It's that team that Mitchell most hopes this team will emulate.
"We're going to outwork you and we're going to make it a miserable, miserable day for you and if you beat us, it's not going to be a real joyous situation because you will have earned it," he said.
10. Can Kentucky sell out Rupp Arena again?
The Cats broke a school record by selling out Rupp Arena last season in a top-five matchup against Duke with 23,706 on hand to see UK fall to the Blue Devils. At Big Blue Madness, Mitchell and his team already were encouraging fans to buy tickets for the women's lone game at the downtown venue this season: versus Baylor on Nov. 17.
A nationally televised game on ESPN2 and the revenge factor should help bring fans back to Rupp Arena. Remember, the Bears were the team that ended Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run in the Sweet 16, 92-70. The two teams had a memorable first meeting last season, too, in four overtimes during an ice storm in Arlington, Texas. O'Neill broke the school record in scoring in that game with 43 points. UK won 133-130.