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Talented starters carrying the load for UK Hoops

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Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, A'dia Mathies, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth have started each of UK's last 10 games. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, A'dia Mathies, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth have started each of UK's last 10 games. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Take a look at Matthew Mitchell's starting lineup and you'll find one of the most gifted groups in the country.

At point guard is Jennifer O'Neill, a prolific scorer and budding court general who was one of the top players in the class of 2010. Bria Goss, last year's Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, starts alongside her in the backcourt. In the post are DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, who are averaging a combined 22.6 points and 14.7 rebounds.

So far, that's four starters and four McDonald's All-Americans. Alongside those four prep stars, you might expect to find a complementary player. Instead, Kentucky has A'dia Mathies. She may not have been quite the prep star that her teammates were, but reigning SEC Player of the Year isn't too shabby.

"There isn't anyone you can say 'Hey, this kid, we really don't have to account for,' " Mitchell said. "That is what you really need if you want to be a really good team. I think that is important."

With such balance among the five, Mitchell is turning to his starting group more than he has at any point during UK Hoops' run of recent success.

On the season, the starters have combined to score 55.4 of UK's 77.5 points per game, or 71.4 percent. The last three seasons, the five players with the most starts to end the season combined to average 53.5 points in 2009-10, 46.3 in 2010-11 and just 40.2 last season.

Even those statistics don't put the contributions of the starters in proper perspective. During nonconference play, the Wildcats won 11 of 13 games by at least 18 points, meaning the starters often saw their minutes limited with UK up big. O'Neill, meanwhile, has only evolved into the go-to point guard in recent weeks.

Looking at solely at the three SEC games, the starters are scoring 68.0 of UK's 76.0 points per game. Moreover, Mitchell is showing great trust in the five by playing them a combined 147.0 minutes per game. Over the last three seasons, the five primary starters have averaged 112.6, 113.0 and 137.7 minutes per game.

In past years, Mitchell has had to cobble together his rotation with players with varying skillsets: a scorer here, a defender there and a rebounder somewhere else. Now, Kentucky has a group of five players who are capable of doing it all. It's no coincidence that the Cats (15-1, 3-0 SEC) are ranked No. 6 and on a school-record 14-game winning streak heading into a trip to Missouri (12-5, 1-2 SEC) for a matchup on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET.

"In years past, I think we had players people could help off of or not pay that much attention to, so it's clearly the most balanced team offensively, we can do more with them," Mitchell said.

For all that balance and flexibility on the offensive end, one thing remains the same from last season: It all starts with Mathies. The players surrounding her might be more capable of putting the ball in the basket that in the past, but Mitchell is still insistent that Mathies be the first option.

"I just want her mindful that she is a very important player offensively because she can score in so many ways and so she needs to put the ball up and get some shots and that's a good mindset for her to be in," Mitchell said.

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