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UK Hoops looking to tap into vast potential in 2013-14

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UK Hoops is in the midst of preparations for the 2013-14 season, which begins Nov. 8. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK Hoops is in the midst of preparations for the 2013-14 season, which begins Nov. 8. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Take a quick look around the practice floor and you'll see seven former McDonald's All-Americans,  multiple players with professional futures ahead of them and depth both inside and out.

Incredibly, that's the case in both the men's and women's gyms at the Joe Craft Center.

John Calipari might be the one with the reputation as the nation's top recruiter, but Matthew Mitchell is right on his friend and colleague's heels in terms of attracting blue-chip recruits. Year by year, as UK Hoops has ascended the ranks in the women's game, Mitchell has added to his team's pool of talent.

Entering the 2013-14 season, Mitchell -- at least on paper -- has his most gifted team to date.

"You know, what I love about our entire team is the talent level," Mitchell said at UK's Media Day on Tuesday, "and I don't know where we would land on the most talented team in the country, but we have a very, very talented team, and they are all mobile and agile and athletic."

In the post, UK returns starters Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth, who emerged as one of the top duos in the Southeastern Conference a season ago, to go with Azia Bishop, Samantha Drake and Jelleah Sidney. On the perimeter, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett and Janee Thompson give Mitchell one of the deepest groups anywhere.

And that doesn't even include the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history.

Mitchell adds freshmen Linnae Harper, Makalya Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers to the mix. Harper -- a 5-foot-8 guard from Chicago -- is the top-ranked recruit in UK Hoops history and was joined at the McDonald's All-American Game by Epps, the daughter of former Wildcat national champion Anthony.

"Our freshmen have been doing a great job," Stallworth said. "They've been improving daily and that's what we're looking for."

On a team with such an established veteran presence, newcomers as highly touted as UK's might fall victim to distress over immediate playing time, but not these three. They know featured roles are up for grabs in Mitchell's signature fast-paced style and, more importantly, they are putting team goals ahead of any individual concerns.

"Last night we had our tip off celebration with our booster club, and we talked to her and she addressed the crowd, and she said she's just here to help and she wants to win championships," Mitchell said of Epps. "So just a very humble attitude for a player of that caliber is exciting for a coach to see."

That kind of humility is a necessity for any UK freshman, particularly given the change in mentality required to play in Mitchell's 40 minutes of dread defense.

"Well, I have found this: They don't teach much defense at the McDonald's game," Mitchell said with a smile. "They're not working very hard on the defensive end of the floor, so some of the McDonald's All-Americans have a bit of an adjustment period when they get to Kentucky from that respect."

Sixteen practices in, Harper feels like she's on the right path.

"I really think it is all mental," Harper said. "It's really about the fundamentals of basketball. Just sticking to it and doing the little things and taking it step by step daily and putting all the pieces together and becoming a great team."

With that goal in mind, Mitchell has actually tweaked preseason preparations this season.

After an offseason of "self-evaluation" following a third Elite Eight loss in four seasons, Mitchell has put an unprecedented emphasis on offense. UK managed just 62 points per game on 31.6-percent shooting in the three season-ending defeats and the Cats are addressing that as they seek to break through to the Final Four.

 "I just think that we need to make sure as coaches we give them enough opportunity to get to a spot where they, under pressure at the most important time, can execute," Mitchell said.

After a summer and fall of work, Mitchell sees a team that is "much further ahead" than it was this time a season ago on offense. The fact that players are taking their coach's cue away from formal team activities is helping matters as well.

"To begin with, we've all gotten in the gym a lot more," Goss said. "We'll see each other in the gym all throughout the day, sometimes even late at night ... whereas I didn't really see that my first two years."

UK, however, is targeting offensive improvement without its top scorer from a season ago. A'dia Mathies graduated in May and has gone on to a WNBA career, meaning the Cats no longer have the player they turned to when things broke down.

Mitchell says it's too early to tell whether one individual will emerge as a go-to player in her place, but he has an idea of who he'd like to end up taking over that mantle.

"From a coaching standpoint (getting) the ball to get to DeNesha Stallworth would be at the top of any list right now," Mitchell said. "I would want the ball in her hands just from a physical standpoint. She can make plays. I have a lot of confidence in a lot of the players, but I think DeNesha is probably the most gifted and talented offensive player that we have."

Stallworth, a preseason All-SEC selection, had a strong first season at UK after transferring from Cal, but Mitchell expects even more from the 6-3 forward in 2013-14.

"I think she ought to be one of the top 10 or 12 players in the country," Mitchell said. "I think she should be an All-American. I think she could work herself into the position of being a top-five draft choice."

Clearly, Mitchell has no shortage of belief in Stallworth. Now, she's working to follow suit.

"It makes you feel good and it makes you just realize, 'Hey, you can do it. If your coach believes in you, why can't you believe in yourself,' " Stallworth said. "I definitely appreciate him saying that and I'm definitely going to work hard to accomplish that goal."

The goals Mitchell has in mind for Stallworth mirror those he has for his team as a whole. There's no questioning the talent of Stallworth or her Kentucky team. Because of that, it won't take any kind of superhuman effort for them to accomplish what they want to accomplish.

"What we're focusing on this year is real, real simple concept," Mitchell said. "It's not going to be easy, but it's real simple. We just want to try to be our very best, and we talk about that virtually every day. If we can become our best, we can have a terrific season here at Kentucky."

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