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Notebook: Mitchell shows excitement, character at women's basketball media day

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Head coach Matthew Mitchell spoke about the 2012-13 basketball season Tuesday at media day. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Head coach Matthew Mitchell spoke about the 2012-13 basketball season Tuesday at media day. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With Tuesday's news of the Kentucky women's basketball team being selected to win the Southeastern Conference this season, women's basketball media day certainly had plenty of topics to be discussed. With head coach Matthew Mitchell at the center of attention in the Memorial Coliseum media room, the answers to the questions were bound to be entertaining. And in true Matthew Mitchell form, he delivered.

Mitchell was quick to thank the administration including University of Kentucky President Dr. Eli Capilouto and athletic director Mitch Barnhart for the commitment given to him and his staff to continue to build the program into what it is today. He was also very appreciative of his own staff and other members of the athletic department. And he also wanted to point out just how excited he is to be coaching this team this season.

"I think right now Kentucky is the most exciting place in the country to play college basketball," said Mitchell. "We have just great, great people involved, and for us, it starts with our players."

Tuesday's media opportunity gave Mitchell and his players the platform to talk about the prospects of a new season with the potential for such a high ceiling. With last year's team reaching unprecedented success for the program, the team is focused on building this team into a Final Four contender after falling just short last season.  With the talent returning to Mitchell's team and a new group of recruits in the fold, Kentucky has set its sights even higher for the 2012-13 season.

Expectations high as UK looks to break through to Final Four

One of the early questions Matthew Mitchell was asked at his press conference on Tuesday was if his team was Final Four-caliber.

His answer?

"They're a potential Final Four team," said Mitchell. "That's easier for us to say than it is to happen. But if you look at our roster and if everybody were to core together and play really hard and you get some breaks, I think they are they have that potential."

After falling just short in the Elite Eight last season to Connecticut, with a talented roster intact this season, the expectations have been raised this year. Kentucky is picked as the favorites in the SEC, and they think they are capable of reaching that elusive Final Four destination this season.

"That is the big step we are trying to make this year," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "We are definitely making strides to do that. We are working hard in practice every single day. We are working on drills, defense, and everything imaginable to make that run this year."

After falling just one game shy of the Final Four in each of the last two seasons, Mathies believes it's time for the program to break through and take the next step for a chance to play for a national championship.

"We are definitely thinking about it more this year," said Mathies. "We have been to the Elite Eight twice I have been here, so to take that extra step and reach the Final Four would be great for our program."

Depth, chemistry to be keys to success in 2012-13

Watching Mitchell coach his team, it becomes clearly evident that he is a player's coach. He doesn't need to rely on stats or scouting the other team as much as he does worry about the team he is coaching on a daily basis. He doesn't over think things. What matters most to him and his team is to build the best team possible. Where does that begin for Mitchell? Chemistry.

"I am a feel-based coach, emotionally-based coach at times," said Mitchell. "I'm not analytical. I'm not stats driven. I'm thinking about chemistry and I'm a big believer that if we get the intangibles right with this team, that's going to be the difference more so than a certain play or certain scheme."

Where that becomes a challenge is getting every player on board with the game plan. With a roster loaded with talent, including five former McDonald's All-Americans, keeping players happy with playing time and building team chemistry isn't always easy.

Keeping players happy and doing what's best for the team is a constant balancing act, but it's a problem Mitchell is excited to have. That doesn't make the job any easier, but it certainly makes for a better product on the floor.

So rather than basing his starting lineups on reputation or what players have done in previous seasons or prior to coming to Kentucky, he allows his players to compete against each other every day in practice for that precious playing time.

"The best way I've found to really help that situation function well is to make your practice competitive," said Mitchell. "Be very clear on what you're looking for, and then give everybody an opportunity.

"At the end of it what I'm going to try to do is give everybody an opportunity to produce in practice and that will be what dictates who takes the floor in games."

But keeping everyone happy is a priority for Mitchell, so he continues to search to find ways to make sure every member of his team buys into the team mentality. Mitchell believes that if his team doesn't find the right chemistry, reaching their goals might be out of the question.

"I would be lying if I told you that's not something I think about a lot," said Mitchell. "I want to make sure the chemistry is good because if you're not concerned about team chemistry, you aren't concerned with winning a team championship because that's a huge part of it."

Early-season test awaits Kentucky in defending champion Baylor

With high expectations for the Wildcats this season, UK will get an early opportunity to measure up against the best team in the country. When Kentucky travels to play the defending champion Baylor Bears and Brittney Griner on Nov. 13, the Cats will likely be facing the No. 1 team in the country in just their second regular season game.

With bull's eyes placed squarely on their backs in the SEC this season as the new top dogs in the conference, the Cats will become the hunters in a game they will almost assuredly be considered underdogs against the Bears. Mitchell knows that with Baylor's undefeated season last year and the talent they return, his team will have its hands full when they travel to Waco, Texas in less than a month.

"That will be a stern test early in the season and everybody, I think, is familiar with the season they had last year," said Mitchell. "Coach (Kim) Mulkey and all those players and notably Brittney Griner certainly (pose) a strong challenge."

And the players, specifically Samari Walker and DeNesha Stallworth, who could potentially be matched up with national player of the year in Griner, are looking forward to the challenge. Though going up against Griner won't be a particularly new experience for Walker, she's been working hard to give herself the best chance to succeed if her and Griner matchup in the post.

"I played against her my freshman year (at Connecticut) so I kind of have a little bit of experience against her but we both have gotten better, stronger and older," said Walker. "This whole preseason we have been working on shot fakes and different moves around the basket but I don't know how many shots we are going to get off down there."

Mitchell becoming fan favorite with Madness moves

It's become a ritual of sorts, almost a rite of passage for each basketball season. There will be no basketball played until Matthew Mitchell busts a move.

In seasons past, Mitchell has cut a rug with a mean rendition of the once-trendy dance move "the Dougie." Last season, the Big Blue Nation, and the rest of the nation for that matter, enjoyed his rendition of Michael Jackson's "moonwalk."

But this year, Mitchell proved to everyone in attendance and to those watching on national television that his antics were not temporary. When it comes to celebrating a new basketball season at Big Blue Madness, Mitchell is just "too legit to quit" his dancing ways.

As the crowd waited in eager anticipation of what Mitchell would bring to the table this season, donning parachute pants, a shiny jacket and some sunglasses, the head women's basketball coach brought the house down to some of M.C. Hammer's greatest hits.

And just like last the past two years, he was a rousing success.

"It's been overwhelmingly positive," said Mitchell in jest. "People are extremely impressed with my ability to entertain. Madness, it has just been fantastic and I know my parents are so proud of me, my wife, my two daughters - well, one of the daughters doesn't really know what's going on right now - but I'm sure they are very proud of how I go out and represent our family and dress in those ridiculous costumes."

Not only has Mitchell become a crowd favorite, but he's earned some credentials from his players as well. As a player's coach, Mitchell has done an admirable job of being personable, entertaining, but stern when necessary. That's exactly why he's found himself in such a favorable position at the University of Kentucky.

"He definetly laughs and jokes around with us in practice because there are times for that," said senior forward Brittany Henderson. "But he is also very serious and wants us to work hard and do our best at times as well. We love him."

With his office just an earshot away from head men's basketball coach John Calipari and both sharing the main stage at Big Blue Madness annually, Mitchell is yet to approach Calipari about a dual act.

"I try to bring things up to him that don't waste his time," said Mitchell. "He's a busy man, and, no, we are not talking about that."

Mitchell-Calipari relationship continues to evolve

While Mitchell may not approach Calipari with idea of potential dance routines, since Calipari arrived in Lexington, Ky., the two men have formed a valuable relationship.

"I think my relationship with Cal has helped him tremendously," said Mitchell jokingly. "He won the national championship last year and I've been working with him extensively on, really, every phase of the game and mainly on his public relations skills."

As the entire room filled with laughter, Mitchell was eager to talk about his colleague and mentor in a glowing light.

Mitchell praised Calipari, a man who has built programs from the ground floor, for his willingness to share his knowledge. Calipari has gone out of his way to include the women's program whenever he can to get it extra publicity, and Mitchell knows that his friend is always willing to lend a helping hand.

"I guess I need to start with just his willingness to help me, and his availability and his encouragement," said Mitchell. "Those are all functions of him making himself available to me, and from what I can tell anybody on campus that needs his help, he will do that."

As Mitchell has seen his program flourish over the last few seasons, he can attribute some of it to the direction to the man across the hall. Though Calipari is a busy man these days, Mitchell makes sure to pick his brain any chance he gets to take advantage of his wisdom and experience. With an eye on building his own program into what Calipari has built at Kentucky and his other programs in the past, Mitchell is never shy about asking for Calipari's advice.

"In particular with our relationship," said Mitchell, "It is so helpful to be able to walk across the hall as a young coach and go to somebody with experience who has done something that we're attempting to do, take a program that didn't have a lot of tradition and people didn't expect those things and trying to move into that spot where we are now where people do expect good things from us."  

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