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NEXT: UK Hoops living out season's theme

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The 2013-14 Kentucky women's basketball team. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The 2013-14 Kentucky women's basketball team. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When his marketing team and assistant coaches pitched the idea of using "NEXT" as the theme of the 2013-14 UK Hoops season, Matthew Mitchell's mind raced with possibilities.

The mantra can be interpreted in so many different ways and applied to so many different people, and that's why Mitchell was so easily sold on embracing it. But with his team's season opener fast approaching, Mitchell is honing in one meaning.

"For me it's just making sure that we are not living in the past, not resting on our laurels and that we're moving on to the next play, the next practice, the next game and not ever being satisfied with where we are," Mitchell said. "Just moving forward."

With all UK Hoops has accomplished in recent seasons, reflecting on past accomplishments is an easy trap to fall into.

Mitchell has led the program to unprecedented heights, including three trips to the Elite Eight in four seasons and a Southeastern Conference championship in 2011-12. When he arrived, competing at the highest level on the national stage was only a vision in his mind's eye. It's now become an annual reality.

Even now, as Mitchell surveys the practice floor at the Joe Craft Center, he can't help but be struck by the progress that has been made. UK's on-floor success has translated into recruiting, as seven of the 13 Wildcats on this year's roster are former McDonald's All-Americans.

"I just always try to make sure that I am mindful of our progress," Mitchell said. "That keeps me in a real state of gratitude. It keeps me in a state of humility because there's been so many players that have chosen to come here that have impacted our success that had a lot of different options. I'm just so grateful that we've ended up with the roster we have."

Missing from that roster is all-time great A'dia Mathies, who finished her remarkable UK career as the second-leading scorer in school history. Mitchell will tell you there is no such thing as a next Mathies, but the way the Cats respond to her absence will go a long way toward defining this season.

There is no way to predict how that will play out, but Mitchell is excited to see what's ahead.

"I think it's one of the real opportunities we have to challenge ourselves as a program and as a team and as a coaching staff, to figure out how are we going to move forward," Mitchell said. "I think that has to happen in a real natural way and a real organic process. We'll see who emerges.

"Is it one person that takes over A'dia's role or do we get it in a little bit different ways? I don't know the answer to those questions but it sure is part of the challenge and it sure is part of the fun of building a team."

Mathies was never a very vocal presence, but her steadiness on the court in both games and practice was central to UK's success as an example to her teammates. But in terms of taking up the leadership slack, Mitchell sees a team that's ahead of schedule.

"I've been really happy with how the players have worked in that area," Mitchell said. "The first thing you have to have is a lot of trust among the players. You have to have people that will lead and you have to have people that will take direction and move forward in a positive way."

Taking up that mantle have been two players - a senior and a junior - who have been key contributors in the past, but are now emerging as veteran presences.

"I think Kastine Evans and Bria Goss have really stepped forward in vocal leadership positions and trying to really lead by not only example but also in verbal ways and trying to get things organized and trying to take leadership roles," Mitchell said.

Leadership, however, is often a collective effort for the best teams. Each of the five players in UK's senior class of Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker, Bernisha Pinkett and Samantha Drake will play a role. And Stallworth - the All-SEC post player who has a strong case as the most talented player on a stacked roster - is showing a bit of Mathies's knack for leading by example.

"We were watching film this morning and DeNesha Stallworth was showing leadership by how she was going about her business on the court," Mitchell said of a mid-September workout. "She was not cutting corners, she was not resting on her talent. She was doing the little things right and that's leadership in some form. You need everybody to embrace that."

For UK to reach its vast potential, Stallworth and her fellow post players will need to bring that kind of effort daily.

Spurred by the presence of versatile transfers Stallworth and Walker, 2012-13 was somewhat of a transitional season for UK's 40 minutes of dread style of play. In past seasons, Mitchell opted to use four perimeter players and just one post player to field the quickest possible team. But last year, he most often employed a more traditional two-post look.

Stallworth and Walker thrived, averaging a combined 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. They were also far from the only contributors, and Azia Bishop, Drake and Jelleah Sidney will all compete for minutes again this season.

"We have some talent in the post and that's a comforting fact," Mitchell said. "We also have some room to grow in the post. I think Samarie and DeNesha can be better than they were last year. I know that Azia and Samantha and Jelleah, I know all three of those players can play better than they did last year."

If the group develops as Mitchell believes it can, the Cats could be elite in the interior.

"I think we've got a lot depth in the post," Mitchell said. "We're blessed with that, but depth does not matter unless everybody develops themselves to their maximum potential. Now if we do that, we'll be one of the toughest post units in the country."

In order for those post players to thrive, they will rely heavily on Jennifer O'Neill, who grabbed hold of the point-guard position a season ago. O'Neill offers a combination of speed, passing and scoring at the position that applies constant pressure to opposing defenses and Mitchell sees even bigger things in store from the redshirt junior.

"I'm really, really happy with how she looks right now and how hard she's practicing and playing," Mitchell said. "I have very high hopes for Jennifer O'Neill that this is going to be a better season from her than last season."

Not long ago, O'Neill was a true freshman trying to compete for playing time while adjusting to the college game and UK's unique style of play. Now, the next generation of Wildcat stars is going through that process.

Linnae Harper, Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers make up an incoming class that ranked fifth in the nation according to espnW HoopGurlz. The credentials of the trio are beyond question, so building confidence isn't something Mitchell has to spend much time worrying about.

"What we just focus on with the freshman is you are talented. Everybody knows that," Mitchell said. "So now let's focus on how you prepare every day. How you come in and your preparation time is so valuable to you so you have to take advantage of every practice. You have to get up to speed with the pace of how we do things. If they'll just focus on that, their talent will emerge and you'll see major contributions from the freshman class."

Like the classes that came before them, the freshmen are thinking about making the Final Four. Three times in four seasons, UK has fallen just a win shy of breaking through to women's basketball's biggest stage, most recently in a loss to Connecticut in April.

The defeat certainly stung and Mitchell is clear that there are lessons to be learned from it even today, but he isn't thinking about it regularly or using it frequently to motivate his team. He's only worried about what's next.

"This team will never have another chance to come together and be our best," Mitchell said. "We really have a sense of urgency for the time being now. And so I'm not looking back on that game and using it to spur this particular team on."

Mitchell's message in the immediate aftermath of the UConn loss, however, still resonates today. Asked whether he believed his program would finally get over the hump and reach the Final Four after falling short again, Mitchell said without hesitation that it's a matter of when, not if.

In other words, Mitchell believes what's next for UK Hoops is even better than what's in the past.

"We've had success with the principles of our program, so we feel really good about who we are and who we're always trying to be," Mitchell said. "And then we have some talented players and some talented staff members. I just have a real deep belief in our people. With those solid principles, I think you're bound to have that success. That's where my source of belief comes from and I just am very optimistic about the future of our basketball program."

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