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Video: UK Hoops' Smith not ruled out for season quite yet

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This much Matthew Mitchell knows: Starting point guard Amber Smith, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in a pickup game this summer after leading UK on its historic Elite Eight run, is out four to six months.

Other than that, he's not ruling out anything one way or another.

"Amber is going to be a big loss for us early in the year," Mitchell said. "We're taking the approach, and I think it's important for her to take the approach mentally and emotionally that I'm just going to try to work as hard as I can to get well as soon as I can. Sitting here today in August, I can't tell you when she's going to be back on the court again, but I know she is trying to stay in the frame of the mind that I'm going to get back this year and I'm going to play. Whether that happens or not, that's just the mentality that we're trying to take right now so she can heal."

Does that mean Smith could come back this season? During a news conference Thursday to announce the promotion of Kyra Elzy from assistant coach to associate head coach, Mitchell went into detail about Smith's injury but could not provide an estimated timetable for her return.

Mitchell said the prognosis from UK's medical staff was four to six months, but that could vary depending on several factors.

"Usually six months is more accurate than four," Mitchell said. "Could she be ready in five? Yes. Could it be seven? Yes. But somewhere, I think the book is four to six months."

That would put Smith's estimated return anywhere from mid-December to mid-February, just in time for a postseason run.

Ironically, what's going Smith's way is that she has been through a major injury before, tearing her ACL and meniscus in her right knee midway through her freshman season. Mitchell believes that unfortunate experience could help benefit her in dealing with the mental and physical battles that lie ahead in her road to recovery.

"As unfortunate as it is, you do have the prior experience of getting through it and actually doing a little bit better in many cases," Mitchell said.

Should Smith, who averaged 9.2 points and team-high 4.6 assists last season, not return this year, she would be eligible to take a medical redshirt and return next season as a senior. In the case she doesn't come back, Mitchell feels comfortable with the team's arsenal of point guards.

WBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 14.jpg"Whenever you lose someone as valuable as Amber, everyone has to rise to the occasion and chip in and elevate their game a little bit," Mitchell said. "Hopefully everybody doing a little extra can somewhat soften that blow. It'll be awfully hard to replace her just because she's a senior and coming off such a fine year, but we'll do everything we can to get that figured out."

The two leading candidates to take over in Smith's absence will be LSU transfer Crystal Riley and freshman Jennifer O'Neill.

Riley, now a junior, played well as Smith's backup last season but missed the first nine games of the year while she sat out for NCAA transfer rules and the last 10 games with a stress fracture in her left foot.

Meanwhile, Mitchell will welcome one of the nation's top high school point guards in the country last year in O'Neill, who is the program's first incoming freshman to earn McDonald's All-America honors.

In the case that neither works out as planned, Mitchell has an ace in the hole in Southeastern Conference Freshman Player of the Year A'dia Mathies, who saw time at point guard last year.

"It's awfully good to have A'dia Mathies on your basketball team because she can fill in, in a lot of areas," Mitchell said. "If Victoria (Dunlap), heaven forbid, went down, I would look at A'dia as an option there. That's just how good A'dia is. A'dia can play them all. She can run the point or she can post up. So that's a good feeling and that's sort of the way we'll have to do it."

Expectations were soaring into this summer with the return of Mathies, Smith and SEC Player of the Year Dunlap. That outlook might change slightly without Smith, but it hardly matters to Mitchell. He believes the Cats have to continue to use the same underdog attitude that got the Cats within one game of the Final Four a year ago.

"The huge key for this group of young women is will they commit and become a team," Mitchell said. "You're not just a team because you all wear the same uniform. What I love about this last experience we had and why I'm not afraid to talk about it, that group became a team. The group's goals became more important that anyone's individual goals. To me, that's when you have the most chance to maximize your potential and do something special." 

Mitchell's biggest concern is replacing Smith's emotional and leadership qualities that were so essential to the team's magical postseason run. It took time for Smith to find her role on the team and for her to manage the rollercoaster emotions of a season, Mitchell said.

Now, Mitchell is hoping a devastating injury doesn't cripple the progress Smith has made.

"That's going to be the big challenge for the team and for Amber because Amber has been working hard to take strides in the area of being a consistent leader and not letting her emotions get to her," Mitchell said. "You probably couldn't have a more disappointing situation. You've worked so hard to get ready for your senior season. You're coming off an unbelievable year. You feel like you're hitting your stride and then boom, this happens."

For more on Mitchell's news conference Thursday, including comments on the 2010-11 schedule and the change in perception of the program. View video of Elzy's promotion in the post below.

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