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UK Hoops turning to '40 Minutes' mantra to deliver on lofty expectations

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Members of the women's basketball team went through a rigorous strength and conditioning program over the summer in preparation for the 2012-13 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Members of the women's basketball team went through a rigorous strength and conditioning program over the summer in preparation for the 2012-13 season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell didn't waste any time laying down the gauntlet to his team.

When his Wildcats gathered for the first official team meeting upon arriving back on campus, he looked around the room and saw a remarkable group of basketball players. He saw a group of basketball players with nearly unlimited potential.

"I just told them that the players sitting before me in that meeting are nothing less than championship-caliber from a gift standpoint, from a talent standpoint," Mitchell said.

Kentucky enters 2012-13 with a roster featuring five McDonald's All-Americans, one of the top freshman in the nation from last season and a player-of-the-year candidate. Pollsters will pick UK among the nation's elite, meaning expectations among those outside the program have never been greater. But no matter where they fall in preseason polls, there is no one expecting more out of these Wildcats than the players and coaches themselves.

"My message to them is we don't have to wonder about whether we can be good enough," Mitchell said. "All we have to do now is decide whether we want to be that good."

The process of turning promise into achievement, however, does not happen overnight.

Mitchell's teams at Kentucky have come to be known and feared for a signature style of play. The term "40 minutes of dread" identifies the Wildcats fast-paced, aggressive defensive approach and their deadly full-court press has allowed the Cats to force 800 or more turnovers each of the past three seasons, including an NCAA-best 939 last year, simultaneously thrilling fans and frustrating opponents.

With that in mind, Mitchell has shifted the entire focus of his team and his staff to a singular theme that plays off their on-court identity: "40 Minutes." Mitchell wants his team to be able to deliver 40 minutes of energy, 40 minutes of effort, 40 minutes of intensity every time they take the floor. That means every ounce of energy is directed toward that end, from preseason to the final buzzer in the NCAA Tournament.

"That's what 40 Minutes means to me: paying attention to all the little bitty small ways that we can contribute our gifts and our talents from everybody in the organization," Mitchell said. "If everybody can do that, we'll have a team that can play a full 40 minutes."

As Mitchell suggests, that extends well beyond the practice floor and even the players themselves. From assistants to trainers to managers, it's going to take a collective effort to make UK Hoops' championship aspirations a reality. In fact, fans have a role to play in 40 Minutes too.

UK's 48-2 home mark over the last three seasons hasn't happened by accident. An average of more than 6,000 fans have packed Memorial the last three seasons and there have been games where Wildcat faithful have helped snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by giving 40 minutes of vocal support. UK will once again be calling on fans for that kind of help.

As for fans who have not yet been taken in by Kentucky women's basketball, all Mitchell is asking for is one game: give UK Hoops 40 minutes to show you what it's all about.

Those fans who come to Memorial this season can rest assured that Mitchell is hard at work preparing from the summer onward. He is asking the same of his team and the Wildcats need only look inward for the reason why they should heed his demands.

A season ago, Kentucky won its first Southeastern Conference regular season championship in three decades. Nine of the 13 players on this year's roster played significant roles on that team and two more got an up-close look while redshirting. They don't have to look back too far to remember that the path to cutting down the nets in Memorial Coliseum for a celebration of the title started not in the conference opener, but in summer conditioning and individual workouts.

Last year, as well as Mitchell's first four seasons as UK head coach, proved that it's impossible to simply decide to play the way the Wildcats play on game day. In other words, it takes a lot more than 2,400 seconds of work to play 40 minutes of Kentucky basketball.

"I think the last three teams have played a little bit differently than most teams in the country and I think that's been exciting for our fans," Mitchell said. "I think our players certainly have some tangible evidence that it can be very successful from a wins and losses standpoint."

That tangible evidence comes in the form of three seasons in a row of at least 25 wins and a pair of trips to the Elite Eight. A'dia Mathies has been there every step of the way.

Heading into her senior season, Mathies is already among the most decorated players in school history. The guard was the SEC Player of the Year last season and is among the top scorers in school history. She made an instant impact after coming from Louisville, Ky., to play for the Cats and her game has only improved ever since.

She'll no doubt play a central role in whatever success Kentucky has on the court this season, but her responsibility to set the tone for her team with unwavering consistency during the preseason may be even more important.

"I think that's the final piece of the puzzle for her," Mitchell said. "We've all seen what she can do and a consistency in practice where her teammates see her going at the highest level possible has a big impact on our team."

However, it's not as if Mathies is on her own. SEC Freshman of the Year Bria Goss will be alongside her in UK's starting backcourt, while key performers Samarie Walker, Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett, Maegan Conwright and Brittany Henderson, among others, also come back for another season. The Wildcats' returners alone are an impressive group, but it's the four players being added to the mix that will make them that much deeper.

Mitchell raves about the future of freshman point guard Janee Thompson and 6-foot-2 junior college transfer Jelleah Sidney, but he also has a pair of players who have already proven their ability at the college level.

Guard Jennifer O'Neill averaged 5.1 points in just over 12 minutes a game as a freshman before sitting out 2011-12 due to injury, while center DeNesha Stallworth was an All-Pac 10 selection at California before electing to transfer to Kentucky. Mitchell believes her versatile game will allow her to make an instant impact.

"DeNesha has a chance to be one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference, just from what her gifts are and the skill set she possesses," Mitchell said.

Perhaps the best thing about Stallworth and O'Neill is that they already know what is expected of them having been around the program for at least a season each. They know what 40 Minutes is all about.

Mitchell, his staff and his players have worked extremely hard to get to this point. They have built a culture and a style of play that position them for unprecedented on-court success. Now, they are going about the business of making sure their vast potential does not go unrealized.

"It will be a chore and there will be a lot of hours spent trying to get things right," Mitchell said. "But they definitely have the ability to get it done."

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