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UK Hoops not altering style for rugged Duke frontline

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Senior guard Keyla Snowden led UK with 15 points in a 54-48 defeat against Duke last season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Senior guard Keyla Snowden led UK with 15 points in a 54-48 defeat against Duke last season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
A simple look at the roster will tell you just about everything you need to know about the Duke frontcourt. With seven of their nine top players measuring six feet or taller, the Blue Devils are long, powerful and capable of dominating the interior in most any game they play.

Kentucky, on the other hand, starts just one player over six feet. Matthew Mitchell has relied primarily on a four-guard lineup this season, opting for a quick unit capable of playing the kind of high-pressure, up-tempo game that has become the Wildcats' signature.

In spite of the disparity in size and strength between the smaller lineup Mitchell has relied on so far this year and Duke's size, he isn't about to change the way he does business. All he's worried about is the five players he sends to the floor giving maximum effort.

"We will go four guards if we have to," Mitchell said. "Our whole thing is we have to have five people playing extremely hard. If we have four guards or five guards or five post players, you better play your tail off because that's really the only chance we have of winning."

No. 10 UK (8-0) and No. 6/5 Duke (6-1) are set to face off at 6 p.m. Thursday evening in Rupp Arena. The Blue Devils would likely prefer a more half-court oriented game in which their size could wear down the Wildcats, but UK has intention of allowing that to pass.

"We cannot allow them to walk the ball up the court, get into an offense and throw the ball into and of their post players, especially Elizabeth Williams," Mitchell said. "We definitely need for the tempo to be fast."

Mitchell called Williams, a freshman center, one of the best post players UK will face all season. She leads the Blue Devils in points (11.9 per game) and rebounding (9.4 per game) and was not even on the floor when the Duke interior imposed its will on the Cats a season ago. UK managed to hang around in last year's game in Durham, N.C., in spite of being outrebounded 52-37 and allowing 27 offensive boards in a 54-48 defeat. The Cats fell behind 31-22 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, fighting back to take a 48-46 lead on an A'dia Mathies layup with under three minutes to play before Duke scored the final six points en route to a six-point victory.

"I was proud of how they battled in the second half," Mitchell said. "We really had a chance to win the game after a tough first half. That was a physical, physical basketball game and it was not a thing of beauty at all."

Evaluating the tape from that game has been a part of UK's preparation for the rematch and the main lesson for the Cats is that they need to bring a full 40 minutes of intensity to knock off the Blue Devils. Come Thursday, Mitchell will demand his team is ferocious in applying ball pressure.

"We take a lot away from it as you go back and review it," Mitchell said. "We just didn't do enough of what we needed to do from a defensive pressure standpoint. They were so big and they just destroyed us on the boards. Especially in the first half, I didn't feel like we competed that great."

If UK is lax again in terms of ball pressure, Duke could make the Wildcats pay. Mitchell believes the best way to counter a team that likes to throw into the post is to make it as difficult as possible to get to the point where those passes can be made. By forcing turnovers and contesting those entry passes, the Cats give themselves the best chance of successfully combating the Blue Devils' massive and skilled frontcourt.

"It was rough and as I went back and looked at it, we just never got enough pressure on the ball," Mitchell said of last year's game. "If we don't get a lot of pressure on the ball and they can just throw it in to their interior players, we'll have a tough time winning the game."

Senior guard Keyla Snowden, who scored 15 points in last year's matchup with Duke, wholeheartedly agrees with her coach. Some teams might rely on double teaming or fronting their opponents in the post, but that won't be UK's main mode of attack.

"Put a lot of pressure on the ball," Snowden said, when asked how UK will defend the Duke forwards and centers. "I think that will help us with our post defense as well. Coach always tells us that on-ball defense is the best defense and I think that's going to help us out a lot for this game."

Pressuring the ball also will help the Wildcats as they try to avoid the kind of slow-paced game Duke would likely prefer. If it does turn into an exclusively half-court affair, UK could be in trouble.

"They have a lot of depth and they have a very imposing front line and it would concern me greatly if we get into a slow, grind-it-out, half-court game because they are very powerful," Mitchell said.

The partisans who will be in attendance at Rupp on Thursday certainly won't mind UK trying to up the tempo. The Big Blue Faithful are accustomed to seeing John Calipari's Cats run up-and-down the floor in the venerable arena, but UK Hoops is taking a turn this week. Tickets to the game can still be purchased in advance for just $1 apiece from the UK Ticket Office by calling 1-800-928-CATS and Mitchell is expecting an energetic crowd.

"I can't impress upon people who support our program how much they can help tomorrow night if they'll buy a ticket and show up," Mitchell said. "If we have a huge crowd that's behind our players, our players really feed off the energy."

The Wildcats love their normal home floor of Memorial Coliseum and wouldn't trade it for any, but they're ready to put on a show downtown.

"Memorial is our home, but given the opportunity play at Rupp, we're really excited," Snowden said. "We're going to come out and show the fans just how excited we are to play there."

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