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Transfer Stallworth could help take UK Hoops to new heights

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After signing three consecutive top-ranked classes, John Calipari is the Kentucky basketball coach normally recognized for his recruiting prowess.

Matthew Mitchell is giving him a run for his money.

With the transfer of DeNesha Stallworth to UK, Mitchell has recruited four McDonald's All-Americans to Kentucky over the past two seasons. Stallworth, a 6-foot-3 forward/center, could be just the kind of player to help Mitchell take the program's recent success to the next level.

"We feel like we have some good players here now and I think DeNesha is going to fit in with that," Mitchell said. "I think she's the kind of talent that can help us get a step closer to winning a championship."

Stallworth received Pac-10 All-Freshman honors in her first season as a member of the California Golden Bears and was first team all-conference as a sophomore. Projecting success at the college level is a difficult proposition in recruiting, so the fact that her talent has been proven in college made her addition a no-brainer.

"The first thing that got us interested is that she has proven what she can do on the highest level of college basketball," Mitchell said. "She is clearly a player that is talented enough to come in and make a difference in our program."

Mitchell has been the orchestrator behind UK's rise to conference and national prominence in his four-year tenure in Lexington. The Wildcats have utilized a combination of high-pressure, full-court defense and unmatched effort to win 53 games over the past two seasons, reaching the NCAA Tournament in each, and the Elite Eight in 2010.

Although UK has overcome disadvantages in size and even talent at times, Kentucky's margin for error has been consistently small. Teams with a combination of size and quickness have given the Wildcats particular problems. An athletic post with size, Stallworth is the exact kind of player that has spelled doom for UK, most recently in postseason losses to North Carolina and Tennessee.

"That's what you need to do every chance you have in recruiting is figure out how you can get better," Mitchell said. "We just thought she was clearly a person and a player at a level that could help us improve our talent level. She is going to make our frontcourt have more depth and that is something that you always need to be aware of."

The idea of combining that kind of talented size with Kentucky's signature style could prove to be a frightening combination for opponents.

"We hope so," Mitchell said. "We hope that it comes together. We hope that it is a good fit for us and we think that she is."

In essence, Stallworth becomes the fourth member of UK's 2011 recruiting class, joining Connecticut transfer Samarie Walker and high school seniors Bria Goss and Azia Bishop. Walker and Goss were also McDonald's All-Americans, as is rising sophomore Jennifer O'Neill. Mitchell said that the talent being attracted to Lexington can be attributed to a few vital factors.

"First, it says a lot about the university and what an attractive place it is to come and play basketball and get an education," Mitchell said. "Kentucky is just an exciting place."

However, without the passion and tireless work of Mitchell and his staff, recruits would never learn what UK is all about.

"We've been able to couple that with very, very hard working and talented coaches," Mitchell said. "Our assistant coaches work extremely hard to identify players that will fit here and have, not only the right talent, but the right character to come in here and fit into what we feel like is a very disciplined program that can provide a lot of opportunities for young women to come in and try to develop as people and players."

The Big Blue Nation is the final ingredient.

"The final piece of that is a true appreciation for basketball by people here in the Commonwealth," Mitchell said. "We are blessed to be in a place where people genuinely love basketball, that care about the players on our team. We have great support."

Stallworth and Walker will have to wait a while before they get to play in front of those fans. Stallworth will have two years of eligibility remaining after she sits out all of the 2011-2012 season, while Walker will be eligible in December at the conclusion of the upcoming fall semester.

Although the two won't be playing in games right away, they won't be treated any differently in practice.

"We've had very good success with players who have transferred in here," Mitchell said. "What I've tried to tell them is that basically the only difference between them and players who will play is that transfers get a little bit of time off during the two hours that we're playing a game."

Mitchell went on to say that Stallworth and Walker will have a chance to seize an advantage during the time they spend sitting out.

"I think it can be a very big advantage for them if they approach it the right way," Mitchell said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for improvement; it's a tremendous opportunity to get a knowledge of what we're trying to accomplish. I think if they approach it correctly, it can be a big advantage for them."

When Stallworth does play her first game in Memorial Coliseum in 2012, she will be joining arguably the most talented group in Kentucky history. A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson will be seniors; O'Neill, Bernisha Pinkett and Maegan Conwright will be juniors; and Walker, Goss and Bishop will be sophomores.

In other words, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about UK Hoops.

"When you work so hard to attract players to your school and you look up one day and you start seeing the roster with the kind of players you have on it, it is very exciting," Mitchell said. "As a coach, it makes me very motivated to try to do everything I can to get the most out of our players and try to realize some of these things we've been setting our sights on."

Mitchell has no qualms about stating what those goals are.

"Winning an SEC hampionship would be an incredible accomplishment for us," Mitchell said. "Being a perennial NCAA Tournament team that legitimately has the talent that gives you a chance to be a Final Four team, that's what we're looking for. We think that the players on the roster now will give us a chance to do that."

Now that he is recruiting like Calipari, it may just be a matter of time before Mitchell follows him to the Final Four.

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