Bria Goss is averaging 11.7 points on 50-percent shooting this season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Starting on Sunday, the Kentucky women's basketball team will begin a stretch during which it will face four ranked foes in five games.
A matchup with No. 4/3 and archrival Louisville will tip it off, while games against No. 9 Baylor, No. 25 DePaul and No. 2 Duke follow.
But as intimidating as the December schedule may be, Matthew Mitchell isn't thinking about it. Not yet. The Wildcats have another tough opponent to think about first.
"There's not one thought in our mind but Bradley Braves," Mitchell said. "They are a very dangerous team, very tough team and (have) more than enough talent to make plays to win the game."
Bradley may enter Tuesday's game -- which tips at noon ET in Memorial Coliseum -- at 2-3, but Mitchell has been impressed by the Braves in scouting them. They boast a win over Illinois and a starting lineup featuring five players who are averaging at least 9.4 points per game.
"Their starting five is very, very impressive," Mitchell said. "We need to do everything we can to make our depth a positive factor in the game for us and this'll be a tough challenge for us tomorrow at noon."
Kelsey Budd, in Mitchell's mind, is the standout. The senior point guard has made 51 consecutive starts and is averaging 15.2 points, 3.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds.
"As you watch our personnel tape on her, she's able to make all the plays, get to the basket, push it in transition, get to the basket," Mitchell said. "She's able to hit the mid-range jumper, she has deep range from 3, so she can really push the ball."
Like the Central Michigan team UK defeated last Sunday, Bradley won't be afraid to run with the Wildcats. For that reason and a few others, the Braves have UK's undivided attention.
"Those are really good teams (UK will face in December), but the main focus right now is Bradley and taking it one game at a time," Bria Goss said. "Right now, we have a tough team in front of us and we're going to look at them as the top team in the nation."
Goss benefiting from more Mitchell attention
Mitchell has never been afraid of self-critique.
On Tuesday alone, he admitted to not using statistics well enough in evaluating his team and even questioned the way he handled Goss last season.
The junior guard was an immediate impact player, so Mitchell didn't feel the urgency to lead her that he did with other Cats who had a tougher time.
"She showed up and she just really had a great work ethic and did everything that you ask her to do, very little problems," Mitchell said. "Sometimes I don't do great with those players because, SEC Freshman of the Year, great success, I don't know that I did a great job of helping her until it was sort of too late last year and being more aware."
By no means did Goss have a bad season as a sophomore (she averaged 8.8 points while consistently taking on the toughest defensive assignments), but she shot just 38.5 percent from the field. But through six games this season, Goss is shooting 50 percent and scoring 11.7 points a game.
Mitchell attributes that improvement to Goss's work ethic, above all else, but also says a little added attention from her coaches has helped as well. That started with an offseason meeting during which Mitchell asked her to outline her goals and has continued throughout the season.
"It's just constantly trying to make sure that we stay connected and checked in with her and she's doing a terrific job and I'm so happy," Mitchell said. "When someone works hard like that and they see rewards from that hard work, it makes me very happy for Bria."
Goss never felt neglected but she does acknowledge the change over the offseason has helped.
"Over the summer we worked hard and I was in the office more, just building relationships," Goss said. "There will be times when Coach will take me out to eat and just talk. That carries over to the court and I think our bond has become stronger."
Mitchell talks 2014 signing class
On Tuesday, UK officially announced its four fall signees for the class of 2014.
Jaycee Coe, Ivana Jakubcova, Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice will join the team next fall and comprise a class that currently ranks among the top 20 nationally according to every major outlet.
"Not only do you have to have a high level of talent, you have to have the desire to be in this atmosphere and in the environment every day where we are really trying to push young women to be their best," Mitchell said. "We are so thrilled with the four players that we signed."
This was an important class for Mitchell because he will lose four seniors to graduation following the season, including starting post duo Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth. In Jennings and Rice, Mitchell sees shades of Walker and Stallworth.
"What I really loved about the high-school players, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings, is they have very good size, big post players, strong, but have the athleticism and the speed for us to continue to play an up-tempo style," Mitchell said. "Those are not the easiest players to find. It really is a small group of players each and every year."
Coe, a shooting guard, fills a need as well.
"Losing Kastine, losing Bernisha, two players who have throughout their careers made significant contributions," Mitchell said, "but both of them have been able to make shots from the perimeter and help us there and Jaycee Coe is one of the elite-level shooters in this class and what a high-character young woman she is."
Jakubcova -- a 6-foot-6 junior-college center -- doesn't have a facsimile on UK's current roster, but is still a welcome addition.
"She has great size and is really, really tall but still mobile," Mitchell said. "She is not a plodding, slow post. She has some great length and can be disruptive around the basket just with her size. The thing we liked most about her is her skillset. She can really run and catch and has great hands. You know, 15- to 17-foot range that is just knockdown deadly and we feel like she can make the 3 enough to keep people honest."
After Kentucky's 116-49 win over Lipscomb on Friday, the Wildcats talked about their near-record-setting night.
They reflected on their impressive streak of four consecutive games with 20-plus assists. They were asked about how eight different players had scored in double figures.
But in the middle of all that, Bria Goss snuck something interesting in as she responded to a question about their improvement at the foul line in the second half.
"Usually when we go into the locker room, Kastine (Evans) makes a list of points of improvement and things we're already doing well," Goss said.
It's a common visual, a coach going to the whiteboard at halftime to highlight areas for a team to improve. For a player to do it is another story, even a senior leader like Evans.
It turns out, however, that it's not a new thing for UK Hoops.
Matthew Mitchell started it a few years back as he searched for ways to maximize the 15 minutes the Cats spend in the locker room for halftime. With that goal in mind, Mitchell directed his players to gather and assess the first half as the coaches did the same on their own.
"We just wanted to make sure that no matter if you are up or down or where you are, you will have some positive points and some points for improvement in the second half," Mitchell said. "That gives the players more of a focus while we're trying to get our thoughts collected."
As the years have gone by and Mitchell has built his program, he's noticed growth in that halftime routine. More and more, the Cats and their coaches are on the same page.
"It's been really good to see that evolve to what the coaches talk about and we walk in and what the players have written down has really matched up well, which tells you the players are in tune with what we need to be doing to be successful," Mitchell said.
Evans is at the forefront of that, which is why it should come as no surprise that she's the player who wields the marker.
The Salem, Conn., native has accepted every role assigned to her, from coming off the bench and playing out of position in the post early in her career to now starting and serving as UK's second-leading scorer at 12.8 points per game. But regardless of what she's asked to do from a basketball perspective, she's always been a leader.
"I look to the veterans a lot to set the tone in every game and Kastine Evans is a good one as far as knowing what we need to do mentally to prepare," Mitchell said. "She's doing such a great job of that day in and day out in practice and in games. I feel good that we have some veteran leadership right now."
Mitchell will be counting on Evans' leadership this weekend, as UK (5-0) travels for a tough road test at Middle Tennessee State (1-2) on Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.
"I think, clearly, the most gifted team we've played to date," Mitchell said. "Middle Tennessee has some really good players and you know they are going to be well-coached. Rick Insell is one of the best coaches in the country and certainly one of the great coaches in women's basketball right now."
UK-MTSU has become an annual series, with the Cats losing the last two times they've traveled to Murfreesboro, Tenn. For the players who were there two seasons ago, the 70-58 defeat is fresh in their minds.
"I haven't won there yet so this is definitely a game that I'm excited to play and really go down there with a lot of intention on winning this game," Evans said.
Behind Lexington native Ebony Rowe, the Blue Raiders won't make that an easy task. Rowe -- a senior forward -- is averaging 20.7 points and 12.0 rebounds.
"She's just a great, great college basketball player," Mitchell said. "I think the world of her; she has a great family, great people. I'm glad to see her have the success she's had, but I'm going to try hard for her to not have any success on Sunday, but that's hard to do with a player like that."
Rowe is certainly a Southeastern Conference-caliber player, helping to make MTSU the closest thing UK has seen to an SEC-level team this season. Add to that the fact that UK will make the same Thursday-Sunday turnaround it will have to throughout conference play and you have a challenge that could benefit the Cats down the road.
"I think it's going to be really good for us," Evans said. "Especially in the next week and a half, we have Louisville coming up, which is a great team. This MTSU team is really dynamic. They always go to the NCAA Tournament so it's always a great opportunity for us, as long as we use it how we should."
And if the Cats aren't doing that through 20 minutes, Evans will have something to put on that whiteboard.
When people think about Kentucky's "40 minutes of dread" style of play, defense is the first thing that comes to mind.
That was certainly the case on Thursday night, as Greg Brown lamented the way the Wildcats "mentally drain" opponents with their pressure after his Lipscomb team committed 32 turnovers in Memorial Coliseum.
But there's a side of UK's signature style that is ignored at times. The Cats don't only apply constant pressure with the way they hound their opponents; they also do it with the way they constantly push the ball.
"Well that's just the goal for us is to put 40 minutes of pressure on you and not just defensive pressure," Mitchell said. "I think the offensive push and the push on misses and makes us hard to deal with."
Sure, UK scored 40 points off Lipscomb's 32 turnovers. Of course, the Cats made the Bisons pay for their mistakes in a 116-49 victory on Thursday.
This Kentucky team, however, doesn't need a traditional fast-break opportunity to get out and run. Every new possession is a chance for a quick basket, whether it comes from a live-ball takeaway, a defensive rebound or even an opponent's basket.
After Thursday's offensive explosion -- which fell just five points shy of the school record for points in a game of 121 -- UK (5-0) is averaging 97.2 points, including 102.8 over its last four games. Against Lipscomb, the Cats had an astounding 92 offensive possessions. For the sake of comparison, the fastest-paced men's college team averaged just 73.2 possessions per game a season ago.
On average, UK's possessions lasted just 12 seconds, with the Cats often shooting before the 10 seconds women's teams now have to cross midcourt. That all begins with Kentucky's two-headed point-guard monster of Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill.
Mitchell opted before the season to split minutes between the two equally, and they have responded. On Thursday, they combined for 27 points and six assists. On the season, they are averaging 20.0 points, 7.4 assists and 3.4 steals as a tandem.
"I'm just really proud of Jennifer and Janee for understanding that that's real, that the goal of that is real," Mitchell said. "It's not to placate one or the other or play mind games so one's not upset."
Mitchell restated his goal after the Lipscomb win that he wants Thompson and O'Neill to, together, become the top point guard in country. Thompson smiled as if to suggest she's heard that a few times before when asked about it postgame, but it's a challenge she's accepting.
"He knows that either one of us could be on the court at any time and he trusts the both of us equally," Thompson said. "So we just try to do our best and give Coach Mitchell whatever it is he's looking for when one of us is on the floor."
The two have come to complement each other well on the court, but that starts well before tip-off.
"I think that starts off the court," Thompson said. "Me and Jennifer have a really good relationship and then that just transfers onto the court."
That's not just idle talk or a quote that sounds good in a press conference either.
"They're really trying to come together," Mitchell said. "I saw them today at pregame meal sitting beside each other. Walked over to CATS (UK's tutoring center), I was driving back after pregame meal, they're walking, they're together."
Together, Thompson and O'Neill are guiding an offense that is clicking on all cylinders. The Cats dished out 22 assists against Lipscomb, marking the fourth straight game they have topped the 20-assist mark.
"That's almost unheard of," said Bria Goss, UK's leading scorer with 18 points. "I've never heard anything like that before, but that just kind of shows you where we are as a team right now."
Goss was one of eight Wildcats to score in double figures, something that had never before happened in school history.
"All of the players are working hard and have put our team in a good position," Mitchell said. "We need to stay very humble, work very hard and stay hungry in practice every day. When we do that we will have a lot of opportunities to win some big games this year and play well."
Azia Bishop had 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in UK's win over Central Michigan on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Earlier this week, Matthew Mitchell announced that senior Samantha Drake will miss the season after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in Kentucky's win over Central Michigan on Sunday.
Drake -- who will apply for a medical redshirt -- is now in the beginning stages an arduous recovery process that is expected to last seven to eight months.
Mitchell hopes Drake can return in time for the 2014-15 season. If her early approach to the injury is any indication, there's a good chance she will.
"I have been really proud of Samantha, she has responded with a very positive attitude and that is what she needs," Mitchell said. "The only thing we can do now is prepare every day to get herself into a position to get back on that court. It won't be this season, but she can get back on the court next season."
Drake is now the second Wildcat lost for the year, joining freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers. Goodin-Rogers was diagnosed with a blood clot before the season and recently returned to limited non-contact workouts, but is still being treated with blood-thinning medication.
"You never know why these things happen, but you have to learn the lesson that is there and you only do that by positive attitude and moving forward in a positive way," Mitchell said. "Both of those kids are doing that and I am proud of the team because they are rallying around them and helping them a lot. It is a good atmosphere from that standpoint."
Drake and Goodin-Rogers are around the team as much as possible while they sit out, but the fact remains that UK has games to play without them, starting on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum against Lipscomb.
The Wildcats began the season counting depth in the post as a strength, but are now down to starters DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker and reserves Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney. Stallworth and Walker have played up to expectations thus far, while Bishop has put together arguably her most extended stretch of solid play of her career, making the blow to UK's depth easier to absorb.
"We are fortunate that Azia is playing well, but we had six post players that can play and had talent and could really go," Mitchell said. "Now, we have four that can play and that is a good situation to be in as well."
Playing 15 minutes a game, Bishop has been one of UK's most productive players on a per-minute basis. She is averaging 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds and has tallied 20 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks over her last two games.
The 6-foot-3 Bishop has had more than her share of moments during which her talent has been on full display, but never before has she been so well-positioned to turn potential into consistent production.
"This has been some sustained progress and that is where we need to be and where we have to stay with Azia," Mitchell said. "We have to keep her progressing. She seems to be in a great spot mentally and emotionally and those are key to you being able to go out and really turn loose and let your physical gifts shine."
Even if Bishop does become the player Mitchell knows she can be on a nightly basis, he knows there will come a time when foul trouble or other circumstances will force him to turn to a backup plan. Fortunately for the Cats, Mitchell has plenty of experience coaching a smaller lineup. UK began its run of success under Mitchell primarily playing four-guard lineups and he won't be afraid to turn to them again this year.
He already has a couple players in mind he believes can play out of position in a pinch.
"We've had a lot of success in the past here with some four-guard lineups and so I think Makayla (Epps) and Kastine (Evans) need to get comfortable with knowing the post position," Mitchell said.
Epps and Evans may be just 5-foot-10 and 5-8, respectively, but they each have a skillset that will allow them to succeed in a more post-oriented role.
"Makayla's strength can help her on defense," Mitchell said. "Get lower and be stronger and maybe keep a taller player away from the basket. She's very athletic, can jump and is very strong on the boards. Kastine's very, very sharp and knows all the plays and plays really hard."
A senior, Evans has proven her willingness to so whatever is asked of her time and time again, from starting to coming off the bench to playing the perimeter to playing the post. Mitchell has been around long enough to understand how precious that kind of team-first mentality is. That's why he was so thankful to see the same thing in Epps even though she's a highly touted freshman when he approached her on Wednesday about stepping into the post.
"Makayla was just very excited about whatever she can do to help the team, whether it's point guard or playing in the post and two or the three. That's a very rare talent, a very rare player, but it's more rare to have a kid with an attitude like she has, that I'll just do whatever you want me to do."