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UK Hoops settling into SEC routine

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A'dia Mathies is the reigning SEC Player of the Week entering a matchup with No. 15/14 Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) A'dia Mathies is the reigning SEC Player of the Week entering a matchup with No. 15/14 Georgia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
There isn't much about coaching in the Southeastern Conference Matthew Mitchell doesn't like.

He relishes the challenge of leading a team through what he believes is the toughest conference in America and testing his wits against some of the legends of his profession. He loves playing games that mean something night in and night out and he even enjoys the way the league schedule is set up.

So many grow to detest the daily and weekly routines in their lives, but not Mitchell. When it comes to the SEC's traditional two-game-a-week Thursday-Saturday schedule, Mitchell is a fan.

"I enjoy this time of year from a coaching perspective," Mitchell said. "The nonconference maybe you can experiment with some things and I'm always trying to figure out the best way to coach the team, but conference time helps me a little bit to get really focused on what's important."

What's important to Mitchell is to capitalizing on every moment with his team to help the Wildcats improve, because there simply aren't many practices left before the regular season wraps up. UK may face tough game after tough game in the rugged SEC, but the routine allows the Wildcats to hone in on the task at hand.

"I just know from a coaching perspective, if you've been in this league or around this league for awhile it's sort of comforting - teams are talented, that's not comforting - but at least you know what you need to do to be successful in this conference," Mitchell said. "I feel like it gives us a better focus."

Now more than two weeks into conference play, the No. 6 Wildcats (16-2, 5-0 SEC) know what's in store on a weekly basis. Following games on Sunday, the Cats have an off day on Monday before two demanding practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. A demanding conference game follows on Thursday before a practice each on Friday and Saturday before yet another game on Sunday.

This Thursday, UK will make a trip to Athens, Ga., for their only matchup this season against the No. 15/14 Georgia Lady Bulldogs (15-3, 4-1 SEC). The Cats will be looking to extend the longest unbeaten start in conference play and maintain sole possession of first place in the SEC in a third-consecutive outing against a top-25 opponent.

The last Thursday-Sunday combination UK faced was about the most difficult the SEC has to offer, as UK won a pair of games against Tennessee and South Carolina, which is proof of how well the Wildcats have embraced that routine.

"The players have responded," Mitchell said. "They have responded big time. We try to focus on different things on Tuesday than maybe we do on Wednesday, but it's all in an effort to get ready for that Thursday game, and the same is true with Friday and Saturday. I think the players have really taken to practice and what we can get out of it."

Thursday's game at 7 p.m. will also be the second-straight road affair for the Wildcats, and fourth overall. The first two at Notre Dame and Middle Tennessee State didn't go so well, as UK suffered its only two losses of the season, but UK has since won two in a row away from Memorial Coliseum in conference play. It began with a win at Florida on New Year's Day, a game Mitchell called crucial to the development of his team.

"I was real proud of the team after Florida because we bounced back from what was a substandard energy level by Kentucky standards at Middle Tennessee, and then very quickly the next game we were able to get energized and beat a really tough Florida team," Mitchell said. "I thought that was a huge turning point for our season, just to be able to get that back."

The Cats will need to bring a similar energy level as they travel to face the Lady Bulldogs, who are led in by the inside-outside combination of forward Jasmine Hassell (13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds) and guard Khaalidah Miller (13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds).

Georgia coach Andy Landers is 33-11 against Kentucky in his tenure and UK has just three wins in Athens in school history against 16 losses.

"We have a big road challenge ahead of us," Mitchell said. "Georgia is an outstanding basketball team with really good players and is always well coached. We always have a real, real tough game any time we go to Athens. This year will be no different."

A road test like this one would be even more concerning if not for UK's depth. Depending on who has brought the necessary intensity to the floor, Mitchell has been able to curtail his 12-player rotation in road games and keep the Cats who are playing well on the floor. Even more importantly, Mitchell's players embrace their depth and cheer each other on rather than resent one another over playing time, or lack thereof.

"We have a team full of kids who really seem to be pulling for each other and rooting for each other and focused on Kentucky winning," Mitchell said. "You need that when you have a deep bench because there aren't as many minutes to go around. We talked about that early in preseason, how if we really wanted to be successful that was a formula we would all have to contribute and sometimes you'd have to sacrifice and it's come together nicely."

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