After the final buzzer sounded to end last season, Matthew Mitchell was ready to start the 2009-10 season.
The 2008-09 season was done, so Mitchell wasted little time in regrouping and getting ready for the upcoming season. And it has been difficult for him to contain his excitement.
As last season progressed, Mitchell saw flashes of dominance from forward Victoria Dunlap; he watched Amani Franklin transform from a role player to a go-to star; he witnessed Amber Smith turn into a wily guard; and he saw his three-point threat, Carly Morrow, become a complete player.
And as Mitchell looked down his bench, he saw highly touted transfers Rebecca Gray, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley, who would soon be eligible to play. Mitchell also knew he had a talented freshman class coming in, headlined by Kentucky Miss Basketball A'dia Mathies.
With outstanding facilities in place, a well-rounded coaching staff, and the most complete and talented roster since he arrived at UK, Mitchell was ready to embark on a breakthrough season. But he knew one thing was missing.
While acknowledging his players' dedication in past years, Mitchell knew this group could give more. He wanted them to understand that it is a privilege to play for the University of Kentucky, so he urged them to strengthen their commitment in the offseason and take the summer more seriously than previous squads have. Mitchell even instituted a dribbling program that required the players to take - and dribble - a basketball wherever they went.
Mitchell's plan was a success. The players returned to the fall semester more focused and in better shape than ever, Mitchell said.
"The players that have been in the program for years now have a better and clearer understanding of what we want them to do," Mitchell said. "You have a group of seniors and a group of juniors that really look to make something special and their opportunities are starting to dwindle."
Now is the time for players like Smith, Dunlap, Franklin, Morrow and Lydia Watkins, and their stellar preseason workouts have trickled down to the rest of the team. Coaches raved all preseason about their newfound work ethic.
"I think what we have is a collection of players who are as close to having the same attitude as they've had since I've been here. It's a positive attitude and a positive outlook," Mitchell said. "The main thing is everybody involved has been really committed to our winning goals. We talk about discipline all the time. They've done a good job with the opportunity that was presented to them over the summer to get better and take advantage of that, so that's what has me so optimistic."
Here we go indeed.
If there's one reason more than any other for the increased optimism this season, it's the massive upgrades on the perimeter.
Despite losing fan favorite Carly Ormerod to graduation, UK's biggest strength this season should be the perimeter play of its guards. The Cats are deeper, more talented and more experienced at the guard position than they've been under Mitchell.
It starts with the trio of Amber Smith, Carly Morrow and Amani Franklin, UK's three leaders on the perimeter. Each brings a different game to the floor, but all three have the capability of putting up big numbers any given night.
Smith, who returns as the Cats' starting point guard, is the floor general behind the offensive attack. At 5-foot-6, Smith provides lightning-quick speed and an uncanny ability to create shots for herself and her teammates. In her sophomore season, she dished out a team-leading 3.6 assists per game, but more importantly, she learned how to take control of the game and run the team.
One of Smith's primary passing mates on the outside is the sharpshooting Morrow. Although she's struggled with consistency, she possesses an unstoppable three-point shot at times. In 32 games with the Cats last season, she knocked down 48 treys, good for 10th in the Southeastern Conference. Although a chunk of her 7.5 points per game average came from the outside, Morrow developed an all-around game in her sophomore season.
But the chief weapon in UK's perimeter arsenal is the dynamic Franklin. At 5-foot-11, Franklin boasts versatility and big-play ability. She has the capability of playing all three guard positions (including forward) and returns as UK's second-leading scorer after netting 11.3 points per game last season.
Franklin has eclipsed the 20-point mark four times in her career, including a career-high 28-point outpouring at South Carolina last season.
"Amani made tremendous strides last year from being a role player to a go-to player," Mitchell said. "I was happy with the way she handled the transition and I think that we are looking forward to her to be great this year. As a senior who has been a double-digit scorer in the SEC, we need her to take the floor with confidence that she can be that scorer night-in and night-out. The newcomers may be there every night and might not, but we know Amani will be. We believe in her and need her to produce."
If the newcomers are "there," UK could have the best collection of guards in the SEC. The Cats welcome four new guards - three transfers and a freshman - all of whom Mitchell expects to contribute immediately.
Freshman A'dia Mathies is an athletic guard who can score at will and sophomore Crystal Riley adds a dangerous threat at the point position, but the biggest difference-makers could be local products Rebecca Gray and Keyla Snowden.
Gray, a former Miss Kentucky Basketball star and Scott County product, logged 15.3 minutes and 5.2 points per game for the nationally ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in 2007-08, and Snowden, a Lexington Catholic High School graduate, torched the record books at Akron her freshman season, breaking the school record for most three-pointers in a single season with 91.
During individual workouts in the preseason, assistant coach Kyra Elzy said the sharpshooting duo knocked down more than 20 three-pointers in a row.
"The fans better sit back and enjoy the ride because these two individuals can rain threes," Elzy said. "They shoot threes like people shoot free throws."
Their addition will be a much-needed boost to a team that struggled to knock down the perimeter shot in 2008-09. UK ranked near the bottom in the league in three-pointers made a season ago, but Mitchell is hoping the shooting presence of Gray and Snowden will open things up for everyone.
"The last couple of years we haven't had those two or three players that you knew were going to knock down three-pointers on a consistent basis," Mitchell said. "I think Rebecca and Keyla will help us in that respect by being those two very, very consistent three-point shooters."
The Cats lack depth and height, but Mitchell believes the frontcourt will still be strong if it can continue to play outstanding defense and rebound the ball.
"There's not as much depth there, but there is a lot of quality talent there," Mitchell said. "Everybody has to do a good job of taking care of themselves, getting plenty of rest, eating right and making sure they stay healthy. If we stay healthy, we have more than enough talent to make a really big impact."
Dunlap has shown flashes of outright dominance at times. As a sophomore, Dunlap led the team in scoring, field goal percentage, rebounding, steals and blocks, and the 6-foot-1 forward currently ranks seventh on UK's double-double list with 13.
If Dunlap can become more consistent, she has the ability to become one of the league's best players, according to Mitchell.
"This summer was key for her because it was really the first summer she was able to develop her individual game," Mitchell said. "Last summer she was slowed down by arthroscopic knee surgery and the summer before she was a freshman and really didn't know what to do or what was going to be asked of her. This past summer, she was more focused than I have ever seen her and it's shown. She's come back shooting the ball much better and is much more aggressive offensively."
But she'll need help down low. Eleia Roddy, another double-double threat by her own merit, will be tough to replace.
Responsible for filling in for the departed Roddy will be a pair of freshmen. Forward Brittany Henderson is an athletic forward who can run the floor extremely well, and center Anna Cole will give the Cats a boost of height that they haven't had since, well, ever. Standing at 6-foot-7, Cole is the tallest player in UK Hoops history.
"Brittany Henderson and Anna Cole are both freshmen and they need to learn and get better, but their attitudes lead me to believe that they'll come in and contribute right away," Mitchell said.
The return of Lydia Watkins will certainly be important, both from a depth standpoint as well as an experience factor. After sitting out most of last season due to personal reasons, Watkins, a guard/forward, is expected to get most of her minutes in the frontcourt.
During her sophomore season, Watkins averaged 4.4 points and 3.8 rebounds in less than 13 minutes of action.
"Lydia just brings a big bundle of energy that we missed last year," Mitchell said. "She brings athleticism and a spark. She makes plays that get her teammates and the fans fired up. She is just an energy player and she is off-the-charts intelligent as a player. She knows what is going on and we need her to stay healthy and have a good year. She will be a huge part of this team if she can do that."
But no matter how great those players play, UK will still have to switch up things offensively this season to compensate for the lack of numbers in the paint. At times, they'll use a four-guard lineup, and at others, they'll put Franklin in the post.
Mitchell, though, believes it will work to UK's advantage. Because of the Cats' inability to knock down shots last season, teams could pack it in and clog the interior game for UK.
This season, Mitchell wants the Cats to play a more up-tempo offense and shoot a higher percentage from the field. Mitchell now believes he has the personnel to do that.
"We definitely want to look different on offense this year," Mitchell said. "We want to be more up-tempo and we want to use to the three-point stripe more to our advantage, more so than we did last year. In years past, we've been a lot slower paced, trying to go half court and trying to really execute and grind things out because that's what the personnel has dictated.
"Being deeper at the point guard spot now with our quality depth, speed, quickness and the overall upgrade we have being able to shoot the ball, I think we'll look differently on offense. I think it's going to look better."