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With SEC slate underway, the training wheels are off for UK Hoops

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Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats play their first SEC home game on Thursday at 6 p.m. against Arkansas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats play their first SEC home game on Thursday at 6 p.m. against Arkansas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's Southeastern Conference opener was not for the faint of heart.

Baskets were at a premium as the Wildcats prevailed 59-56 in a physical and low-scoring affair against Florida. Each and every loose ball was contested as the two teams grabbed a nearly equal share of the 86 rebounds that careened off the rims in Gainesville, Fla.

Given that UK had lost two of three coming into the game and Matthew Mitchell attributed both losses to subpar levels of intensity, seeing his team respond with abundant energy in spite of a relative lack of offensive efficiency, was a welcome development.

"We were incredibly energetic; we just didn't play well offensively," Mitchell said. "We played a very good defensive game. ...  For us to play well on defense we have to have energy."

Having been through the rigors of the SEC schedule, Mitchell knows there will be games when the offense simply isn't able to execute as the Wildcats want it to. With the size, athleticism and defensive ability of so many teams throughout the conference, UK is in for a good number of battles over the coming months.

Gone are the days when the Wildcats are able to experiment with different personnel and sets while they overwhelm opponents with their talent and style of play. Instead, Mitchell's players better show up ready to play from the tip if they want to stay on the floor.

"We're out of the segment of the season where you're on-the-job training," Mitchell said. "You're either ready to roll when the ball goes in the air or there aren't going to be a lot of auditions in SEC play."

That's certainly going to be the case when UK Hoops (12-2, 1-0 SEC) plays host to Arkansas (11-2, 0-1 SEC) at 6 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, in a game that will be televised on Fox Sports South.

"They just have some very talented players, they're well-coached and this is always one of the toughest games to prepare for all season," Mitchell said. "It'll be a big challenge for our team."

First and foremost, defense is where head coach Tom Collen's Razorbacks excel. Opponents are scoring just 50.3 points per game against Arkansas and no team has scored more than 68 points against them all season.

UK's offense has scored just 58.5 points in its last two outings and will be sternly tested in its SEC home opener. Those offensive struggles have coincided with somewhat of a slump from top scorer A'dia Mathies. The junior guard has reached double figures just once in UK's last three games largely due to a more passive approach. Mathies has attempted double-digit field goals just twice over her last seven games after trying 10 or more in each of her first six outings of 2011-12.

"I just think that for whatever reason, she loses sight of how important she is or how important it is that she is aggressive on offense," Mitchell said. "I think it was the Notre Dame game, and she just wasn't aggressive, and she had 17 points. We really need her to have the mentality that maybe a bad shot from A'dia is a better shot than a good shot from somebody else."

A quiet presence, Mathies is deferential to her teammates and, at times, unselfish to a fault, but Mitchell hesitated in speaking philosophically about her nature as a player. He sees her current bout with passiveness as nothing more than a fleeting phase. His approach to correcting it hasn't been to try to fundamentally change the way Mathies thinks. Instead, he gives her specific direction that she needs to shoot at least "15 or 16" times per game for UK to have the best chance to succeed.

"I tell her she has to shoot the ball this number of times, and if she doesn't we are going to have some problems," Mitchell said. "She has a lot of responsibility on offense and she needs to take that seriously every day in practice. We have been talking about it, but we are not going to be nearly as good offensively if she is not very aggressive."

Particularly against a defensively sound Arkansas team, UK will need assertiveness out of a player as dynamic as Mathies to succeed. Mitchell called facing off against the Razorbacks a "chore", but he's happy it's one his team will be undertaking in the comforts of Memorial Coliseum. The Wildcats have yet to lose at home this season and boast the nation's 12th-longest home winning streak of 12 games. UK hasn't played a game at home since a win over Samford on Dec. 21, and will be relying on a loud Memorial crowd as the Cats seek their first 2-0 start in SEC play since 2007-08.

"We've been working hard and I feel like we're making some progress and it'll be a great, great opportunity for us to get back home in front of our crowd (Thursday) night - and I hope we have a big one," Mitchell said. "It's an extremely important game. We'll be looking forward to taking the court and playing Arkansas."

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