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In spite of unknowns, UK Hoops ready for big stage, top-ranked Baylor

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Matthew Mitchell and his Kentucky team will take on No. 1 Baylor at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday in Waco, Texas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell and his Kentucky team will take on No. 1 Baylor at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday in Waco, Texas. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Outside of the NCAA Tournament, the spotlight in women's basketball doesn't get much brighter than the one the Kentucky Wildcats will be staring into on Tuesday night.

UK's game at Baylor will be televised nationally on ESPN2. The Cats will be taking on the defending national champion Lady Bears, a team that went 40-0 last year and hasn't lost a home game in more than 32 months. Taking the opening tip for Kentucky's opponent will be Brittney Griner, the reigning national player of the year and arguably the most famous female basketball player on the planet.

That's a tall order, but one these Cats aren't shying away from. They are looking forward to the marquee matchup because it's just another step in taking their program where they want it to go.

"We want to be the best program in the country," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We want to be the best women's basketball team in the country and I think you have to play in games like this to get there."

That sounds a lot like the old "to be the best, you have to beat the best" cliché, but there's a key distinction to be made. Mitchell doesn't discount what a win would mean for his team and his program, but neither a victory nor a defeat guarantees anything in March, when things really matter. It is the second game of the season after all.

"Being able to go on the road and play Baylor, who is such a great team, is something that will do nothing but help us," Mitchell said.

Don't get Mitchell wrong though, the Cats will head to Waco, Texas intent on winning. Baylor is the nation's unanimous No. 1, but Mitchell believes his sixth-ranked UK team has plenty of reasons to be confident heading into the State Farm Tip-Off Classic.

"I think they are certainly physical attributes of our team that would allow us to win the game and there are clearly physical attributes that Baylor possesses to win the game," Mitchell said.

Baylor's biggest physical attribute - both literally and figuratively - comes in the form of the 6-foot-8 Griner. She averaged 23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 blocks last season and is as much of a presence on offense as she is on defense.

"Griner presents unique challenges just with her size, but she is a great player," Mitchell said. "She's not just a big imposing figure in there. She can really, really play and her game has developed."

In light of Griner's ability, it would be easy to get caught up in facing her and her alone. In Mitchell's mind, that would be a mistake for two reasons.

First, Baylor is far from a one-woman team. Point guard Odyssey Sims was an All-American as a sophomore in 2011-12, dishing out 4.4 assists per game to go along with 118 steals. She guided an offense that committed just 13.7 turnovers per game and outscored its opponents by an average of 26.3 points. In Mitchell's mind, limiting her is just as important as defending Griner.

"Odyssey Sims is unbelievable," Mitchell said. "She's a really, really good player, she's so explosive and she deserves every accolade she receives because she is a top-notch player. She's so fast with the basketball, so aggressive, so decisive in her movements and she is going to be a challenge."

Sims and a team full of talented players are reason enough not to focus solely on Griner. But even more importantly, Mitchell is not allowing the Cats to train their eyes on one player alone because they have bigger goals in mind than beating Baylor.

"We can't spend a whole lot of time just trying to take one player away at this stage in the season, because I think that would really impede our progress of trying to build this team for the long haul," Mitchell said.

With the season still so young, the Cats are still in the early stages of finding their feet in UK's signature "40 minutes of dread" defense. What that means is Mitchell wants his team primarily focused on itself and its own development rather than pulling out all the stops for a mid-November victory. What Mitchell wants is a team playing much better basketball when the calendar flips to 2013 and conference play begins.

The fact that the Cats are still a work in progress means it's difficult to predict what will happen against the nation's top team.

"We're not as sophisticated on defense as maybe we would be two months from now, so that part of it is sort of one of the big unknowns going into the game is how our defense will go up against their offense," Mitchell said. "It will be interesting to see."

All Mitchell can really ask at this point in the season is for effort and intensity. If the Cats can deliver those things, they will live with the result - win or lose - and go from there.

"This kind of game, I think we just have to turn it loose and go play really, really hard and try to stick as close to our identity as we can," Mitchell said. "Whether that's going to be a good formula to play Brittney Griner, we're not sure. We will find out tomorrow night."

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