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UK Hoops taking simplified approach into second round

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Matthew Mitchell (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell was bordering on surprised, not that his team won, but at how well the Wildcats played during Saturday's NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Wright State.

Even with all the momentum the Kentucky women's basketball team took into the NCAA Tournament coming off a nice run at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Mitchell just wasn't sure what to expect.

Hosting a NCAA Tournament game for the first time, having not played in two weeks and facing a relatively unfamiliar opponent with postseason pressure Mitchell had good reason to feel that.

He ended up witnessing -- and contributing to -- one of the better all-around performances Kentucky has put together all year.

"I certainly didn't come into today with this kind of expectation that we would play this sharp," Mitchell said. "We've historically kind of struggled in this game for whatever reason, because of the long layoff and so my mindset going into the game was just to let them know that they had clear advantages in the game."

Mitchell may not have anticipated his team would play as well as they did, but he certainly enjoyed the 106-60 victory. Much of the success may have been down to his simplified message before the game: to exploit Kentucky's physical advantages be them in terms of size and speed.

"I didn't go in thinking we were going to win by 20, or 40, or anything like that," Mitchell said. "I sort of showed up with the mindset (Saturday) of let me do my part for the victory, let me coach the best that I can and let's see what happens. Nothing that they did really surprised me, but I was extremely pleased and grateful to the players that they came out and executed the game plan."

And so Mitchell turned his attention to Syracuse, Kentucky's second-round opponent, and the challenges the Orange will pose to UK when the two tip off Monday at 6:40 p.m. ET inside Memorial Coliseum.

But instead of focusing on the painstaking details of the matchup, Mitchell has been stressing a similarly simple approach to the one UK used going into Saturday's win. The Wildcats will need to continue to excel in every aspect of the game from here on out should they hope to advance.

Standing in the way will be Syracuse and the many variables that could affect how people play them.

"What I see with them is a team that is able to create some turnovers in a different way than we do," Mitchell said. "They full-court press you, three-quarter court press you, they've got some half-court traps that we're going to have to deal with and then the 2-3 zone, which we've had some success against, but it certainly hasn't been automatic this year. There have been times where we've struggled against the 2-3 zone."

The Orange -- in Mitchell's eyes -- match up far better with UK than Wright State. Thus Mitchell and his Wildcats will look to play even better than they did on Saturday morning. In other words the Wildcats are looking to improve on what was already arguably their best-played game of the season.

"We had a great day yesterday and we had a significant advantage in personnel," Mitchell said. "This game, the difference in personnel is not as great, the advantage is not as great and we have to be ready to play."

Arguably the biggest challenge for the Wildcats could be executing offensively against Syracuse's base 2-3 zone defense, which UK struggled against early in the SEC schedule. But the Wildcats have since shown they can make shots and get the ball to the paint no matter what defense they face.

And yet like their coach, the Wildcats themselves are embracing the challenge of facing a formidable zone defense in the high-pressure NCAA Tournament.

"I think it should be easier for us because it's just one thing we have to focus on, it's the 2-3 zone," UK guard Jennifer O'Neill said. "We don't have to worry about them playing man or trying to switch it to a 3-2 or stuff like that. We know what they're going to play and now we just have to go out and perform and execute."

Samarie Walker also doesn't seem to sweat the prospect of facing a 2-3 zone so long as UK can execute its offensive counterattack to the zone.

"It's a little frustrating for inside players because we don't know where were going to get the ball, we have to work just a little bit harder than (against) man (defense)," the senior forward said. We might not always get the ball on the block which is where we want to get the ball, it's a lot more movement for us but I think by now we should be used to it because that is what we got played most by in the SEC."

For his part, Mitchell seems more concerned with his team playing its best more than he focuses on specific opponent game planning. Although he likely watches plenty of opponents' game film and develops schemes to attack other teams too, Mitchell indicated he goes into big games keeping it simple, focusing more on his team positioning itself to play its best than preventing other teams from playing theirs.
 
Mitchell admitted as much when asked how he would prepare the Wildcats for playing Syracuse without knowing the injury status of one of the Orange's best players: Brittany Sykes.

"I don't know if this point in time with our team that we make it totally about the opponent," Mitchell said. "We really try and have a good plan that we can execute whether she's playing or not."

The Syracuse sophomore guard has since been ruled out for Monday's game, but the news likely won't change the broader theme for UK.

Mitchell is focused on his team playing its best as early and as often as possible as UK continues into the second round of the the NCAA Tournament.

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