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Matthew Mitchell has never been afraid of a little self-reflection.
His latest look in the mirror came after Kentucky lost at LSU 10 days ago.
"Baton Rouge was a big wake-up call for me because as I looked at the film, it was not a team that was playing with a great desire and it was not a team playing with a lot of fire or that was playing particularly sharp," Mitchell said. "That's all on me."
Particularly when it comes to his young group of post players, the season has brought more than its share of frustration for Mitchell. With coaching departed veterans Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth still so fresh in his mind, he couldn't help it.
"What I noticed and what I think it was not helpful was grading them and comparing them to past teams," Mitchell said. "That got us into a spot where I was probably more negative than I needed to be with our post players."
Ahead of a showdown with No. 6 Tennessee (17-3, 7-0 Southeastern Conference), Mitchell has changed his approach accordingly.
"I need to have an atmosphere in practice and around the program where they will fight, play hard and give you everything that they have," Mitchell said. "I just got the post players together last week and talked with them. It's not a matter of whether they can or they can't. It's a matter of whether they will or they won't."
Mitchell is learning to accept mistakes as he teaches, and also to simplify what he asks of freshmen Alexis Jennings, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Alyssa Rice.
"That doesn't mean it can't be good," Mitchell said. "That doesn't mean we can't win tomorrow night. We just have to do what we've been working on real well and we have to play extremely hard and we have to outwork Tennessee and we have to play a lot harder than Tennessee."
Though the goal with the Lady Volunteers coming to Memorial on Thursday at 7 p.m. is of course to win, No. 10 Kentucky (16-4, 5-2 SEC) doesn't view the path to victory as any different than it would be for another opponent. UK-Tennessee remains a rivalry with conference race implications, but the Cats have more immediate priorities.
"The worst thing I can do is go in and tell Alexis Jennings, 'We've gotta get in here and beat Tennessee and if we don't beat Tennessee, the world's gonna stop turning,' " Mitchell said. "She's got enough in her brain right now just knowing what she's got to do in ball-screen defense and what she needs to be doing in the press and what she needs to be doing in our offensive sets that I really haven't put a lot of emphasis on the game, not because we don't respect Tennessee or we don't think it's a very big deal."
Facing Tennessee is a big deal for another reason as well.
The Lady Volunteers, led by seniors Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison and juniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore, are dominant, physical and experienced in the frontcourt. Tennessee has an average rebounding margin of plus-nine and has shot 158 more free throws than its opponents this season.
"Where Tennessee poses a great challenge is very important," Mitchell said. "If we want to be a really good team at the end of the year, we're going to play teams like Tennessee that are going to go to the offensive glass and are going to be tough and they're going to be physical in the post. So it's a great opportunity for our post players to compete and to see where they stack up right now."
Regardless of the outcome, Thursday won't be the end of the line for the Cats or their developing post players.
"It's an important game. It's an important rivalry," Mitchell said. "I just haven't had a lot of time to work that angle because we've got so many things this team needs to do and improve on. We're trying. We've got 32 days until Senior Day and we're just trying to build every day on some improvement and see what we can become at the end of the season."