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Entering postseason, Mitchell knows all he needs to about his UK team

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UK Hoops will open the SEC Tournament on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK Hoops will open the SEC Tournament on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
College basketball teams, by and large, are judged by how they perform in the postseason.

Take Wichita State's men's team as an example. If the Shockers are bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, their unbeaten regular season will be viewed in a different light.

But when Matthew Mitchell considers how he'll remember his current Kentucky team, he doesn't need March to measure its worth.

"They've already shown me that they're a team," Mitchell said. "You can't do what they've done and you'll never be able to convince me that these kids aren't a team."

UK has had more successful regular seasons under Mitchell. In fact, the Wildcats' 22-7 record entering the postseason ties their worst in the last five years.

However, the way his team closed the regular season told Mitchell everything he needs to know.

A little more than three weeks ago, UK was 17-6 with losses in five of its previous nine games. The Cats were 5-5 in Southeastern Conference play with star senior DeNesha Stallworth still trying to rediscover her pre-injury form.

Since then, Kentucky has won five of six to earn the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The stretch includes road wins over top-25 opponents Tennessee and Texas A&M and the only loss was at the hands of league champion South Carolina.

"We've learned a lot, but I think that would be the biggest thing is it would have been very easy for us to say, 'Hey, we've had injuries, the ball is not going in the basket or we're suffering bad breaks,' and play the excuse game," Mitchell said.

Rather than play that excuse game, the Cats took a hard look in the mirror.

Adjusting to a new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play, Kentucky saw the full-court pressure defense that had lifted its program to unprecedented heights take a step back in 2013-14. There would be games where the Cats would look like their former selves, but consistency escaped them.

"I couldn't get figured out things on the floor," Mitchell said. "You can't touch the offense, but the offense can touch you. And so, we've had a struggle at guarding legally and that's my part for not figuring that out beforehand."

Mitchell's mea culpa belies the fact that he hardly ignored the new rules emphasis in the preseason.

"I just thought we were going to be at advantage because I kept hearing people say, 'Hey, you gotta back off, you gotta back off,' " Mitchell said. "And so what we did is we worked so hard. We worked harder on our footwork and harder than we ever have because we weren't going to change. We brought in officials before the year. They said, 'Gosh, you guys look great.' "

That didn't translate exactly as Mitchell hoped it would. In conference play, UK is forcing just 17.1 turnovers per game, a stark contrast to a season ago when the Cats' SEC opponents committed 21.7 turnovers per game. Meanwhile, UK has been whistled for 21.1 fours per game in SEC play this season, up from 18.6 last year.

The effect of UK's full-court press neutralized, Mitchell has had to reevaluate the way his team plays defense. UK's 81-58 loss to South Carolina was the final straw of sorts on that front.

"We have to do something different when we see a team like that, and we may see them (at the SEC Tournament) and we have to play differently than we did out here and that's totally on me and I have to get that done," Mitchell said.

He has.

"Now, I've had to change," Mitchell said on Wednesday, "and they looked really good this morning in some defenses that we wouldn't normally see a typical Kentucky team playing and so they're real good defenders, but I was slow to change there and that's totally on me and my fault."

With all the success Kentucky had had with the "40 minutes of dread" defense, it's understandable that it's taken some time for Mitchell to move away from it. It would have been also been understandable had the Cats taken a while to adjust to the shift, but they are fully on board whether UK is in full-court man-to-man press, half-court zone or anything in between.

"I think there was a lot of expectations placed on our team," Mitchell said. "We certainly embraced those at the beginning of the season, so when you go through some of the struggles that we went through, as a coach, I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to change or make the necessary changes. I think it shows a lot about our players, their character and how hard they worked and really, really proud of this group."

That won't change based on what happens in the postseason, which starts for UK on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. That doesn't mean the Cats won't be giving the SEC Tournament all they've got.

"We're going to go down there and we're going to try to be the tightest, most together team at the tournament and we're not going to worry about anybody else and we're just try to go out and have a very good game plan for Friday afternoon, whoever that is, and play our hearts out and see where that gets us," Mitchell said.

Some coaches may view conference tournaments as just another step en route to the NCAA Tournament, but not Mitchell. UK is headed to Duluth, Ga., with every intention of making it to Sunday and winning.

"It's a fantastic event," he said. "I've always said if you win this tournament, you've identified yourself as a very, very good basketball team. We'll have to play well and play hard and see if we can keep advancing in the tournament."

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