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UK Hoops practice report: Physical play a focus

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Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats are preparing for the start of the 2011-12 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats are preparing for the start of the 2011-12 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats are in the middle of preparation for the 2011-12 season. With 16 days before UK's season opener against Morehead State in Memorial Coliseum, the Cats went through a grueling and physical two-and-a-half hour session.

Practice photo gallery

Cat Scratches had a chance to take in Wednesday afternoon's practice at the Joe Craft Center and here are a few observations from the action on the floor:

  • Mitchell opened practice with a few words for his team. He was looking for a step up in intensity and effort from the previous day and recounted a story from one of his own workouts earlier in the day. As a sign of solidarity with the team, he went through one of the same workouts as his players and talked about the importance of mental preparation to persevering through it. He went on to say that players choose to come to UK for a reason: because it's different from other places where "you can have a good day or a bad day and it doesn't really matter." That's not the case at Kentucky.

  • After a brief prayer at mid-court, the team split into groups of four for a shooting drill. The first group to finish earned the right not to run, which would be a continuing theme of practice. There are rewards and consequences for every single drill. Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden, Crystal Riley and Brittany Henderson were on the winning team for the opening drill.

  • Next up was a transition and shooting drill with no defense. Starting off practice, UK's guards shot exceptionally well. Also, it was immediately clear Smith is comfortable with the knee she injured a year ago. She is wearing a brace, but moved around well. Also, Smith's return to the point allows A'dia Mathies to return to her more natural off the ball position, which she figures to thrive in. Although Smith is back, Crystal Riley should not be forgotten. The senior consistently went toe to toe with Smith and held her own.

  • Throughout that full-court drill, Mitchell harped on playing at a high speed. At one point, he stopped a drill and told the players to run it back. "I want it a Kentucky pace now," Mitchell said.

  • After a free throw drill in which each player had to shoot and make four free throws to avoid running, UK went into the featured drill of the day for about 30 minutes: a full-court, full-speed, four-on-four rebounding drill.

  • Any explanation offered of this drill just won't quite do it justice. It was one of the most physical, demanding things I can ever imagine a team going through on a basketball floor. It opened with assistant coach Matt Insell shooting and missing from the top of the key. One team blocked out while the other tried to offensive rebound. Once the defensive rebounding team secured the board, they ran the length of the floor and tried to score on the other goal. It was an up-and-down drill with no holds barred. No fouls were called and there was no out of bounds. Players repeatedly hit the ground diving for loose balls. The only break the Cats was when the losers ran suicides or players broke off for a free throw shooting drill. When the season starts, there won't be a single opponent too physical for the Cats having seen through that drill.

  • During those rare breaks, Mitchell and his fellow assistants really were coaching up two of UK's gifted freshmen: Bria Goss and Azia Bishop. The coaches clearly believe the two can contribute right away and their talent is evident. There will be bumps in the road for both, but they have bright futures.

  • It's also abundantly clear why Mitchell is so excited about the addition of DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker via transfer. They responded well in general to the physical play. They are big, skilled and athletic and will make an impact when they are able to play. On a couple occasions, Mitchell actually singled out Stallworth as an example of how UK's bigs should play through contact. She's been through the battles at this level and it shows. With bigs like Stallworth, Walker and Bishop who are versatile, Mitchell is also asking his forwards and centers to bring the ball up the floor off rebounds when they are unguarded.

  • Once the rebounding drill wrapped up, the Cats went right into a full-court drill that emphasized trapping off ball screens. Teams played three on three to start with, but it became five on five after the initial possession. The drill was only slightly less physical than the previous one.

  • As practice progressed, players ran more and more and there's no getting around it at a Mitchell practice. Mitchell also continued to have his team shoot free throws throughout, emphasizing the importance of consistency at the stripe even when players are worn out.

  • It's a bit of a cliche to say the bench is the best motivator, but there's no question Mitchell is using his team's depth to his advantage. Roles are guaranteed for no one, including starters from last year and Mitchell isn't afraid to say it. UK has talent and a lot of it and not everyone will play as much as they would like because of it.

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