Not long ago, UK Hoops was on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in. Matthew Mitchell was building his program, and that meant NIT berths in both 2008 and 2009.
Nonetheless, the Wildcats enter March Madness 2014 with a different perspective than in the first four years of their school-record five-year NCAA Tournament streak.
"Five or six weeks ago we were wondering if we would get in the tournament or whether we would play in it, so I think this team is very excited to play and I think they are looking forward to the opportunity," Mitchell said. "I think they appreciate the opportunity."
It's an opportunity third-seeded UK (24-8) will get only because of the way the Cats responded to adversity.
The beginning of Southeastern Conference play was rough for UK, bringing five losses in nine games and burying the Cats in the league standings. The Final Four aspirations Kentucky brought into the season and built on with two December wins over top-10 opponents seemed farfetched.
But rather than succumb to his team's struggles, Mitchell swallowed his pride and solicited help.
"When we were not playing well, I just went to the team and asked them for their feedback and God bless them they gave it," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, you aren't real engaged with the team.' "
For Mitchell, that wasn't easy to hear. That didn't stop him from listening.
"I showed up every day knowing that I loved all of them in my heart and working hard and doing things I thought were important to try to get us better and they said they needed something different," Mitchell said. "They needed a different level of engagement off the court and it was surprising to me because it was a lot of veteran players that I felt like I knew them and they knew me."
Casting surprise aside, Mitchell took the message to heart and learned a powerful lesson in the process.
"You don't want to believe that about yourself and your initial reaction is, 'You're wrong, I do love you and look at what all I've done for you,' " Mitchell said. "Then you start playing that game and you have to stop that very quickly and listen to what they're saying. It was pain but I don't know that you learn a whole lot without some pain along the way."
Helping to unburden the Cats of the expectations he said had "weighed down" his team, Mitchell and his coaching staff placed a renewed emphasis on being there for their players outside the game.
"We're spending a lot more time together off the court here the past couple of weeks and I think that has helped on and off the court with our relationships and just getting to know each other better," junior captain Bria Goss said. "The coaches also are around a lot more, we commend them because we went and talked to them about it and they have responded so positively and I think that really helps us."
The proof is in the results.
The Cats have won seven of nine games entering an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with No. 14 seed Wright State (26-8). Their only two losses have come to No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Tennessee, but UK also has wins over both during the stretch, as well as tournament teams Florida, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.
UK was particularly impressive in the SEC Tournament, taking down Florida and South Carolina before falling to Tennessee by a single point in the championship game.
"I thought we were the more aggressive team and that's where we need to be tomorrow morning," Mitchell said. "We need to be the more aggressive team on the court and stay in attack mode and I think that was the greatest lesson we've learned out of the SEC Tournament."
It's a lesson that Wright State won't make easy to apply.
The Raiders have grabbed Mitchell's attention in preparing for Saturday's first-round game at 11 a.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, especially for the way they play on the perimeter.
Wright State took down fifth-seeded North Carolina State earlier this season and was equally impressive in clinching its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in an 88-69 win over Green Bay in the finals of the Horizon League Tournament.
"I look at their guard play on tape and they are just outstanding and one of the scrappiest, most together performances I've ever seen in their championship game on Green Bay's home court," Mitchell said. "They played with a lot of fire and a lot of intensity. They will make it difficult."
Behind junior guard Kim Demmings -- who is averaging 22.7 points per game -- the Raiders are fourth nationally in scoring at 84.0 points per game and first in turnover margin (plus-9.9).
Where UK figures to have an edge is inside. The Raiders often play four guards and feature only one player taller than 6-foot-1.
"They are very scrappy guards and they look to dig on post players," DeNesha Stallworth said. "A key for us will be keeping the ball high and protecting the ball. Rebounding is going to be huge in this game. I think that our size is definitely going to be an advantage but we have to take that advantage and use it."
UK's other advantage will be playing on its home floor. The Cats are hosting NCAA Tournament first and second rounds for the first time ever and figure to have a vocal crowd cheering them on. But just like with their size, home court only becomes an advantage if the Cats make it that way.
"If you think about it overall, probably the No. 1 overall thing -- and I told the team this -- you need to play well so you gain the advantage of playing at home," Mitchell said. "You need to play with a lot of fire, a lot of intensity and a lot of passion, because that gives the fans energy and then they give it back to you."