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Notebook: Season's next phase begins for UK Hoops

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A'dia Mathies helped lead UK to a trip to the SEC Tournament final in 2011. (Victoria Graff Photography) A'dia Mathies helped lead UK to a trip to the SEC Tournament final in 2011. (Victoria Graff Photography)
Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats head down to Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday afternoon for the Southeastern Conference Tournament. UK Hoops opens play on Friday at 1 p.m. in Bridgestone Arena against the winner of eighth-seeded Florida and No. 9 seed Auburn. Metz Camfield will be traveling with the team and bringing you features, video and other blog fodder.

Mitchell spoke to the media Tuesday afternoon about the start of postseason play. I couldn't pick out just one thing to write about from his comments, so here's a pre-SEC Tournament notebook:

Cats needing to shift from celebration mode to focus

Matthew Mitchell is still flying high. It has been 48 hours since his team clinched its first regular-season SEC title, but he still has a smile on his face.

As UK Hoops begins intensive preparations for the upcoming conference tournament, Mitchell will shed that contentedness in favor of his customary intensity in practice, but he doesn't figure to be able to suppress it early Friday afternoon.

For years, Mitchell has watched the SEC Tournament as a fan, a volunteer assistant coach, a full-time assistant coach and finally as Kentucky's head coach, and for years he has envied the SEC's regular-season champions when they are honored with that trophy before that first game on Friday.

"I've always watched that trophy presentation and said, 'Boy, how cool would that be to be that team?'" Mitchell said. "Now we're that team and I think that's going to be a cool moment. I wish we didn't have to play right after that. I wish we could kind of enjoy it a little bit more."

The moments immediately following that trophy presentation could go a long way to deciding what kind of March the Wildcats have. Will they bask in the afterglow of the school's first SEC title in three decades or will they move on to the next task at hand?

"They're going to give us that trophy before that game and I don't want us to be sort of satisfied starting the game," Mitchell said. "I think that's the main thing I'm going to be working on this week, is trying to make sure we are locked in and ready to go (on Friday) and try to get off to the best first four-minute segment we can."

Mitchell isn't one of those coaches that views the conference tournament as a chore. When he says he wants his team to get off to a strong start in the first four minutes against either Florida or Auburn, it's not just because he wants to prepare them for the NCAA Tournament two weeks later. Though that element is certainly there, Mitchell wants badly to find out what it's like to win the SEC Tournament.

 "It's just a really special thing, I would think since we have haven't experienced it," Mitchell said. "I think it would be a real special thing to be the champion of the tournament. We have a lot of respect for it."

Nashville an ideal site

As an unabashed fan of the SEC Tournament, Mitchell sees Nashville as the best possible home for it.

He doesn't just want you to take his word for it though.

"Nashville, to me, is the best place we can have it for the fans," Mitchell said. "My dad is a big, big fan of the tournament and he says Nashville is the best so I think Nashville's a great spot for everybody. I wish we could have it there every year."

Historically, orange-clad Tennessee fans have dominated attendance in Nashville just as their Lady Volunteers have dominated play on the floor, but Mitchell has noticed more and more blue infiltrating Music City.

"For years and years, all you ever saw at the tournament was orange," Mitchell said. "Nashville's location, and then our team's great play, and then our fans' passion for the team has really been neat to see people show up for us. We've had really strong contingents the last few years at the tournament and it's a neat thing."

Last year, especially, Kentucky fans followed their team in large numbers. As UK Hoops was in the midst of a run to the finals of the tournament, Mitchell observed the wardrobe of people walking Nashville's main thoroughfare.

"That's been a real neat thing to see over the last few years and I shared that with the team last year as we were getting ready to play the semifinal game or the final game, I can't remember which," Mitchell said. "We had gone for a practice and we were driving back down Broadway there and you saw a lot of blue."

With their continually improving play over the years, UK has cultivated more and more loyal supporters, which was evidenced by the impromptu celebration of the Wildcats' SEC title. Even though it was announced early on Sunday afternoon that the team would gather with fans in Memorial Coliseum that evening, hundreds of enthusiastic fans showed up.

At the end of the event, coaches and members of the team signed autographs, at which time Mitchell encouraged fans to make the trip down to Nashville as well. The feedback he received bodes well.

"(At) our celebration Sunday night, everybody that came through said they'd be there," Mitchell said. "So if they were all telling the truth we're going to have a heck of a crowd down there and it's going to be good."

Mitchell makes pitch for Mathies, Goss, Snowden as SEC award candidates

On Wednesday, the SEC is expected to announce its awards for this season. After such a successful season, it stands to reason that UK would have a number of contenders for those awards as well as All-SEC honors.

By rule, Mitchell can't cast his vote for any of his own players when coaches choose their league awards, but that doesn't mean he can't have an opinion that says otherwise.

"I don't know how you could reach a different conclusion on Freshman of the Year than Bria Goss," Mitchell said. "And for that matter, I don't know how you could reach a different conclusion on Player of the Year with A'dia Mathies."

Goss was among UK's most consistent performers, starting all 29 games of her freshman season and averaging 11.6 points and 4.1 rebounds. She scored in double figures in all but eight outings and was named SEC Freshman of the Week four times, including the final week of the season.

Mathies led her team in scoring, steals, 3-point field goal percentage and 3-point field goals made. She was second in the SEC in scoring and was named conference Player of the Week or Co-Player of the Week three times. All her numbers are great, but Mitchell sees a more compelling reason why she deserves the award.

"Last year, the coaches said Victoria (Dunlap) wasn't Player of the Year because we didn't win the title. If we go along that, the best player on the best team you would think would be the Player of the Year and that's A'dia Mathies."

Mitchell didn't forget Keyla Snowden when making the case for his players either, as she is a top contender for Sixth Woman of the Year, though he wasn't sure how fellow SEC coaches would view voting for so many players from the same team.

One person's case Mitchell did not make was his own. Though he said he customarily casts his Coach of the Year vote for the coach who leads his/her team to the conference, he jokingly said he could very easily make a case against himself.

"Let me tell you something," Mitchell said. "You don't live inside this brain. You could find plenty of reasons to come to a different conclusion on Coach of the Year, trust me. Thank God for A'dia Mathies and Bria Goss."

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