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Notebook: Expectations high as season approaches for UK Hoops

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Matthew Mitchell and his team are just days away from opening their season with an exhibition against Coker College on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell and his team are just days away from opening their season with an exhibition against Coker College on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On Tuesday, UK Hoops held its media day with a season-opening exhibition against Coker College right around the corner. Head coach Matthew Mitchell spoke to the gathered media for nearly 40 minutes before players were available. There is definitely a sense of excitement among Mitchell and his players to get this season going, as well as a sense of confidence that this bunch is capable of big things.

I am planning to post a story tomorrow on a now-healthy A'dia Mathies and Amber Smith leading the way for this team, but in the mean time, here are a few of the salient storylines from the day:

Mitchell wants Cats to overachieve

The term "overachiever" has a certain connotation when ascribed to a team, suggesting the team may not have a great deal of talent or natural ability to begin with and succeeds in spite of it.

Well, the 2011-12 edition of the Kentucky Wildcats is never going to be described as being untalented. With proven veterans, exciting newcomers and a trio of former McDonald's All-Americans on the roster, Mitchell has more quality depth than he ever has while at Kentucky. Even so, he is calling on his players to overachieve.

"Every year you go out trying to be an overachieving team," Mitchell said. "If this team will overachieve, I think they will do some special things."

The team now has a choice to what lengths they will go to become special.

"I think our expectations are very high because I believe they can get a whole bunch accomplished," Mitchell said. "I would be disappointed if this team doesn't choose to accomplish some great things."

For the first time in four years, the Wildcats will have to do it without star forward Victoria Dunlap, who graduated and has gone on to a professional career in the WNBA and overseas. Everyone at UK certainly misses Dunlap and is happy about her success at the next level, but they are refusing to dwell on her absence.

"Victoria Dunlap is not here, so she can't help us this season, besides maybe sending us some well wishes," Mitchell said. "Victoria does not factor into this team this particular year. I think we have enough talent and enough players to have a good team and offset anything that happened last year possibly that Victoria gave to us."

One of many areas where Dunlap made a significant contribution was on defense. To reach their goals, the Cats know they'll have to buy into the defensive focus Mitchell has instilled in the program. Helping matters on that front is the atmosphere of competition created by the amount of talented players on the roster.

"We value defense at Kentucky," Mitchell said. "It's a very, very important end of the floor for us, and so we spend a lot of time on our defensive footwork and our defensive fundamentals. If you don't buy into that, there's enough people on the team that will, and you'll get left behind."

Crop of newcomers joining the fray

Driving the noticeable step forward in terms of talent is a class of freshmen and transfers as good on paper as any UK has seen in recent memory. The group features three newcomers to college basketball (Bria Goss, Azia Bishop and Bra'Shey Ali) and two transfers (DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker). Three of the five, Goss, Stallworth and Walker, were named McDonald's All-Americans as seniors in high school. Walker, who played last season at Connecticut, will be eligible at the end of the fall semester in December, while Stallworth will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.

The four who will be able to play this season may play the same position as experienced veterans on the roster, but Mitchell will worry only about who is bringing intensity in practice and who gives the team the best chance to win when he's assigning roles and playing time.

"It doesn't matter if you're a senior or freshman or in between," Mitchell said. "It doesn't matter who your mother is, or your daddy, or your brother, or your sister, or your cat, or your dog, it just doesn't matter. It's what you do when you show up. If you've been preseason or postseason SEC, or whatever that is, none of that matters, except for you to show up on the court every single day and practice."

Walker may be the most heralded of the newcomers and adding to the hype surrounding her are the similarities between her game and Dunlap's. Walker can understand the comparison, but she's not out to be another Victoria Dunlap.

"I don't want to take her place, but I can do a lot of the things she did," Walker said. "We have similar playing styles."

Walker had a chance to learn from Dunlap after her arrival at UK in January by playing against her, which helped her gain an understanding of what Mitchell is looking for out of his post players. As for a characteristic of Dunlap's that Walker is most trying to emulate, there's one that jumps out.

"I would say she's a little more aggressive than I am, but I'm getting there," Walker said.

Goss is another player who many have projected as a contributor from day one. She played point guard in high school, but with all that Mitchell demands out of his point guards, Goss is playing primarily on the wing where her scoring ability can be best utilized. For now, Goss is happy to be in that spot.

"I really like playing the shooting guard position," Goss said. "I feel we can leave point guard to Amber and the more vocal people. I really appreciate what they bring to the possession."

In spite of success on the trail, recruiting still challenging

This strong class of newcomers is a testament to the progress the UK program has made under Mitchell, especially in terms of recruiting. He credits everyone but himself when discussing that success.

"I think it's a real credit to what Kentucky has to offer and the tireless effort and hard work that Kyra Elzy, Matt Insell and Shalon Pillow put into recruiting," Mitchell said. "They really, really work at it, and we have a great school here and great athletic department."

UK may be signing more high profile recruits than ever before, but that doesn't mean the process has gotten any less difficult over the years.

"I don't know how much easier it is," Mitchell said. "I have not found much easy about recruiting. It is just a difficult, difficult process. People are so different. You're just dealing with different kids every year and you really have to do a lot of work to find out what's important to each recruiting class and the different personalities and the people surrounding it."

One thing is for certain though: Mitchell wouldn't have any measure of success if he didn't believe in the product he's selling.

"I think you're crazy if you don't want to come to Kentucky," Mitchell said.

O'Neill recovering from injury

During his press conference, Mitchell discussed the injury sustained by sophomore guard Jennifer O'Neill. Within the last two weeks, O'Neill underwent surgery on a stress fracture of her fifth metatarsal, or her little toe, in layman's terms. Recovery time for the procedure was estimated between four and six weeks, meaning O'Neill is targeting Dec. 1 as a return date.

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