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Season-opening road trip a measuring stick for UK Hoops

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Matthew Mitchell leads UK into two road games in New York to open the 2013-14 season this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell leads UK into two road games in New York to open the 2013-14 season this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Rarely one to sing his own praises, Matthew Mitchell admits he didn't have a grand plan for his team's season-opening schedule.

With so many considerations at play -- from multi-year contracts to venue and opponent availability -- simply coming up with dates on which Kentucky can face the teams it wants to was difficult enough.

But now that Mitchell sees how the schedule has come together -- with a two-game season-opening road swing, including the Wildcats' 2013-14 debut at perennial NCAA Tournament team Marist -- he realizes it all ended up working out well.

"I think there is tremendous benefit by starting the season with a team that we feel like can be very good and can be challenged the opening night," Mitchell said. "We could be here in Memorial Coliseum and playing a team that is not of the quality or caliber of Marist and not be nearly as challenged."

With a matchup against the Red Foxes, who are receiving votes in both major polls, looming on Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., preparation for the No. 7/8 Wildcats has had an added edge.

"Practices have been different and the sense of urgency to get prepared has been different, which are all good things," Mitchell said. "If we don't talk to each other and if we don't play with tremendous defensive fundamentals and if we don't really have a sharp mental focus then it will be trouble."

Over the past four seasons, UK has won its season openers by an average of 36 points and three of the four games were played in the comforts of home. Duplicating that feat against a Brian Giorgis-coached Marist team that was down single digits late in the second half against UK last season won't be easy.

The change, though certainly a challenge, is welcome.

"We're fortunate to play such a great team at the beginning of the season," junior guard Bria Goss said. "Marist is very fundamentally sound. It will be a very good test to see where we are at early in season."

UK's first test came in its lone exhibition against Eckerd College last Sunday. The Cats won comfortably, 83-35, but the visitors did Kentucky a favor by effectively using backdoor cuts against Mitchell's signature high-pressure defense.

"Eckerd gave us a real gift from that standpoint," Mitchell said. "That's what our focus has been, trying to really focus on our defensive fundamentals. Marist is such a good motion offense team and you don't know exactly what they're going to do."

After Marist, UK will stay in the Empire State ahead of a game at Wagner on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. The Cats will also take advantage of a free Saturday in one of the world's greatest cities.

"We get to spend a little time in New York City on Saturday and that'll be good for our players from that region," Mitchell said.

UK's Jelleah Sidney and Jennifer O'Neill are both from the Big Apple, while Bernisha Pinkett (Washington, D.C.) and Kastine Evans (Salem, Conn.) are from the Northeast as well and will have family in town to watch them.

The sightseeing and visits with family will be nice, but this weekend is a business trip for UK Hoops, one that Mitchell hopes will pay dividends both immediately and in the future.

"It's a great, great thing to go to Marist and have to prepare for all that, so I think it will do nothing but benefit our team down the road," Mitchell said. "I'm excited about the opportunity and we'll have to play well to win."

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