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Point guard or coach, UK Hoops looking to Smith for leadership during injury

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Thumbnail image for WBSK 09_10 UKatTN Web 16.jpgThe availability of Amber Smith for this year remains uncertain as the Kentucky women's basketball team answered questions at this season's media day.

Without going as far as to say Smith was ahead of schedule, head coach Matthew Mitchell said his starting point guard, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her right knee this summer, has had a "very productive rehabilitation process up to this point."

"She is doing everything she needs to do and doing it better than we would normally expect," Mitchell said. "The doctors are very pleased with her effort at this point."

Smith will begin jogging in a couple of weeks and she's already started running, jumping, swimming and kicking her knee in her hydro workouts. What that means for the status of Smith this season, neither Mitchell nor Smith claims to know.

"We are not even talking about her future even beyond just day to day," Mitchell said. "We're just trying to get the knee as strong as it can be. Amber will be able to make whatever decisions she wants to make as far as trying to finish the season out, as far as coming back. Whatever that looks like, we'll make that decision when the knee's well."

Smith was in good spirits Thursday at media day, even boasting about teaching "The Dougie" to Mitchell for Big Blue Madness, but she declined to give a timetable for her return. Instead, Smith tried to focus on the positives she can still offer her team this year.

"I'm focused on taking it one day at a time," said Smith, who guided the Cats to the Elite Eight last season as the starting point guard. "The future, whatever happens, happens, so I'm just going to work hard every day."

In the meantime, Smith's importance will not be reduced. As an aspiring coach and vocal leader on the team, Smith has been side by side with Mitchell this preseason in coaching up star signee Jennifer O'Neill and junior Crystal Riley. Both will shoulder the point guard duties until Smith returns.

"My goal is to be a leader on this team and be consistent with that because I've had problems with being consistent with my energy," Smith said. "I think this is a point for me to help be a coach. I want to be a coach and this is helping me learn how to do that and see things differently. My goal is to become a better teacher, better person and a better learner."

Smith scored a career-high 9.2 points per game and dished out 161 assists at the one last season. But both Riley and O'Neill, a consensus nation-top 30 player, should be able to make up for a lot of that production.

What remains an uncertainty is how they will duplicate Smith's defensive intensity.

"We're trying to teach a freshman, Jen O'Neill, how to start the defense," Mitchell said. "That all starts with ball pressure. Amber was just relentless. She would pick it up, dog the ball all the way down the floor. She was always in the right position. She was always in denial. She was always talking. She was the catalyst of the defense."

O'Neill described herself as a passionate, physical playmaker that isn't afraid to take over the point guard duties as a freshman. But replacing the fiery attitude that Smith brought to the court on an everyday basis won't be easy.

"I'm trying to work on that (with her)," Smith said. "She's getting there. She'll get it. It's going to be up to her to dig down deep inside and bring it out."

Smith's initial prognosis would have her back sometime between mid-December and mid-February. Conventional wisdom would suggest Smith would consider a return this year if it was closer to the former, but the fewer and fewer games Smith has a chance to play in, the less likely she'll see the floor this season.

In that case, Smith would probably redshirt.

Until then, though, Smith is getting a head start on her coaching career and taking no breaks as the leader of the team.

"Amber has done a fantastic job of staying engaged, being on the floor every day, talking to those two players, being really unselfish, and spending some time and not thinking about her injury and how bad this is for her, feeling sorry for herself," Mitchell said. "I've been very proud with her progress as a leader through all of this."

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