As demanding as Matthew Mitchell is, he has to admit his three young post players are playing as hard as they ever have.
Alexis Jennings, Alyssa Rice and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers have all developed in their first college season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. The intensity of their play, game by game, is picking up.
"But it's just not quite hard enough for what's coming and what looms in the conference," Mitchell said.
Kentucky's non-league schedule is over and the Wildcats sit at 11-2 and No. 11 in both polls. Those young post players have had a lot to do with UK's strong start, too.
Jennings has come on strong of late, scoring in double figures in four straight games, including a 27-point explosion in a win over Tennessee State on Sunday. Goodin-Rogers, meanwhile, is averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in starting all 13 games, while Rice has contributed regularly as well.
But since last weekend's nonconference finale, the Cats have gone to work on taking the next step.
"It's some good, some bad and what we're really trying to do is even that out," Mitchell said. "And it's difficult because we're so young there and I just don't think--well, I think we're having a hard time understanding how hard we have to play."
Alabama, UK's first Southeastern Conference opponent, is likely to make the Cats pay if they aren't clear about that.
The Crimson Tide sit at 11-4 as it prepares to host UK at 3 p.m. ET on Friday. Sophomore forward Ashley Williams, averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, leads the way.
"It is going to be very, very challenging all season long and it opens up with a real tough one at Alabama," Mitchell said. "They are a very athletic team. They have what I think is just one of the toughest players in the league. Williams is just so tough down in the post, in the block and can also bring it out on the floor and take it to you."
To cope with that challenge, Mitchell knows it's going to take a level of focus his young post players are still developing.
"You just can't do one thing and then rest," Mitchell said. "You have to keep playing throughout the possession. So I think that's our biggest challenge right now, is just defensively for our post players to understand how consistent the effort has to be. But before we're consistent we just have to learn how tenacious and how hard we have to play."
Jennings is at the top of the list when it comes to developing consistency, and she'll surely be motivated to do so in returning to play in her home state. The Madison, Ala., native might inspire some frustration on the part of her coach as she learns to play with the kind of defensive effort that's being asked of her, but she's more than capable of contributing meaningfully in the meantime.
"I feel good about how she is progressing," Mitchell said. "One thing that is in her favor is that if she is having a good day offensively, she can really help you and make up for some deficiencies on defense."
Long term, that's not what Mitchell has in mind. He expects Jennings to become a two-way player.
"When it finally clicks for her, we are going to have a really, really top-level player in her," Mitchell said.
O'Neill 'progressing well' with knee injury
Senior guard Jennifer O'Neill sat out Sunday's win over Tennessee State with a strained patellar tendon. Days after she was labeled as day to day, O'Neill was back on the court going through a shooting workout. There's no official word on her status for the Alabama game, but there is reason for optimism.
"She went through about an hour of shooting last night and those were
game-like shots and she looked good and bounced back this morning," Mitchell said. "So I
think--it looks to me like she's progressing well. We are feeling good
about her progress right now."
Alexis Jennings had career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) in UK's win over Tennessee State on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
If you had watched only the Kentucky bench, you might not have known Alexis Jennings was having a career offensive day.
"I was very hard on her today during the game," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I had no idea she was scoring 27 points because I was trying to coach her up on defense a little bit and it was just a tough game."
It was a tough game that, in large part, the No. 12/13 Wildcats (11-2) won because of Jennings. Along with the career high in points she scored on 8-of-15 shooting, the freshman post player added eight rebounds in UK's hard-fought 87-75 win over Tennessee State (3-8) on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.
The performance was the latest in a string of good ones by Jennings, who scored in double figures for the fourth straight game after not doing so once since her collegiate debut.
"I wouldn't say I saw it coming," Jennings said. "We had four days off and coming back I really wasn't expecting that. But as I got out there, I adjusted well and I was able to score offensively."
Jennings showed off a diverse skillset, burying three of her four tries from 3-point range and scoring on both post moves and put-backs off her five offensive rebounds.
"We would not have won without her and I've told y'all before: She is supremely talented and skilled on the offensive end and I am really seeing a lot of progress out of her," Mitchell said.
Her teammates are particularly impressed with that progress considering how hard Mitchell has been on her both in practice and in games knowing what she is capable of.
"I give Alexis a lot of credit being as whenever we're in practice Coach Mitchell is extremely hard on her," said Makayla Epps, who scored 16 points. "He's hard on all of us, but some days she gets it harder than any of us and she's got thick skin. She's a tough kid from Alabama and I give her a lot of credit because most players would get down and go in slumps."
Linnae Harper - who had a big all-around game with 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals as the Cats fended off a game Lady Tiger team - has seen the same. And with it, she's seen Jennings become more and more self-assured in her continuing adjustment to college.
"I just think, personally, her confidence level has just increased drastically day by day and it's making a difference in the game," Harper said. "She's more tough and I think that's really going to help us when we start SEC conference because we have the toughest conference in the nation."
With Bria Goss missing again due to a broken thumb and Jennifer O'Neill day to day with a strained patellar tendon, Mitchell knew the Cats would be tested on Sunday. With Jennings and others stepping up - including Janee Thompson with her ball pressure and career-high seven steals - they passed.
"Those are the kind of games we need while Bria's out to help us be stronger when Bria comes back," Mitchell said.
Now, when it comes to Jennings, Mitchell will continue to push her to improve defensively.
"I definitely believe that she's capable," Mitchell said. "There's no question. The reason I'm hard on Alexis is because her offense is a little bit further ahead than her defense right now. And so usually when I'm hard on her it's defensive driven."
Matthew Mitchell, with a week to prepare, has watched his share of tape on Duke.
He's come to a clear conclusion.
"We have quite a mountain to climb literally and figuratively," Mitchell said, not quite able to suppress a smile at the turn of phrase.
The Blue Devils you see, are likely the biggest team UK will face all season. The No. 8 Wildcats (10-1) have two players on their roster standing 6-foot-3. No. 13 Duke (6-3) has two such players as well, but also four coming in at 6-4 and another standing 6-5 with Kentucky coming to Cameron Indoor Stadium at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday for a showdown televised on ESPN2.
"The biggest team in Duke history is what they're saying," Mitchell said. "They just have massive size, so it will be a very interesting game. We are not the biggest Kentucky team history, but we do have some speed and quickness so we will have to try and see which style will win out."
More often than not, UK's style has been the one to get the better of its opponents this season.
The Cats already boast a pair of top-10 wins over Baylor and Louisville, both coming after double-digit comebacks. In the two games, UK overcame any deficits in size with that speed and quickness, but Duke is at another level in the post.
Duke, playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, is outrebounding opponents by 22.1 per game. Elizabeth Williams is one of five players averaging 4.8 or more rebounds per game, posting 11 to go with her 14.4 points per game.
UK's post players will be in for a challenge, particularly first-year contributors Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alex Jennings. The trio, along with Azia Bishop, has improved of late thanks to a lot of work.
"We had a good session after practice (Wednesday) with just Alyssa, Azia, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou and myself were just down there for about a half-hour after practice and there was some really good stuff happening," Mitchell said. "You just want to see it show up on the court at some point in time, and I think it will."
But just as importantly, Mitchell needs his perimeter players to set the tone with ball pressure. If they don't, all that work on the part of the post players likely won't matter much.
"We're really going to have to play with tremendous intensity on the perimeter because they're just so big," Mitchell said. "I mean, really, if you give them any chance at all, they'll just lob it up to (Azura) Stevens or Williams and it's almost like a jump ball. So who can jump the highest? They're probably going to jump higher than us. The guards are critical for us defensively in this game for us and without Bria, it's a big challenge."
Mitchell, of course, is referring to the absence of Bria Goss. The senior guard and UK's top defensive player will miss four to six weeks with a broken thumb suffered on Sunday before a win over Belmont. The injury will force the Cats to adjust on a couple fronts.
First, UK's smaller lineup is less of an option with Goss out.
"In some of the tight games that we've been in, I've sort of bailed them out by putting Makayla (Epps) at the four and I think for us long term in a game like this, we're probably going to have to have some size on the floor as you look at some of the bigger teams in the SEC, it's going to be necessary for our young post players to come along and contribute this season," Mitchell said. "It's a big test for them, on the road, at Duke, against a really big front line and so I think they're getting better."
And of course, someone will need to fill Goss' defensive void. Mitchell mentioned Jennifer O'Neill, Janee Thompson and Makayla Epps as candidates.
"Well, it's another great opportunity," Mitchell said. "Who is really going to step up and be a defensive stopper now? Who is going to step up?"
If someone does, the Cats could benefit in the long term.
"I think that you have to find the silver lining in these kinds of things," Mitchell said. "You must. And really, if we respond correctly, maybe we can be stronger in a month when Bria comes back and I told Bria it could be something greater for you. Maybe this gets us deeper into the tournament and makes us stronger."
Azia Bishop had a double-double in UK's 71-55 win over Belmont on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A minute and 56 seconds into Kentucky's game against Belmont, Matthew Mitchell turned to his bench and sent five new players into the game.
For a brief moment, Belmont's Cameron Newbauer thought he might have been coaching in Rupp Arena instead of Memorial Coliseum.
"I thought you guys were starting to be like the men. Blue and White or something," Newbauer said, referencing John Calipari's platoon system. "I looked at the bench and I said, 'Have he and Cal been hanging out?' "
Mitchell and Calipari do speak often, but that wasn't the reason for UK's line-change substitution so early in Sunday's game. Mitchell was simply unwilling to accept what he was seeing from his team.
"That was not my plan at the start of the game," Mitchell said. "I just was very disappointed with how our first unit came out and played."
And so in came the second unit in a game tied at the time, 3-3. The effort the second wave of Wildcats gave wasn't perfect, but it was enough to propel No. 8 UK (10-1) to a 71-55 win over Belmont (2-7). In fact, it was one player - Azia Bishop - who largely responsible for the improved energy.
Bishop, coming off the bench for the second game in a row after making eight starts to begin the season, did it all for UK. She had season highs in points (15), rebounds (12), blocks (four) and steals (three).
"Before the game, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou told me I just needed to come in and work ahead and attack the board and just give it my all," Bishop said. "I think doing that, it produced what I had today."
Returning to the reserve role she filled in her first three seasons in Lexington may have had something to do with it too.
"If you think about, she's done it for three years, come off the bench," Mitchell said. "We just need production from her and I loved her fight today. I thought she had some really great moments of fight. And really there for the first portion of the game, at the time she was the only one."
"Starting, it really doesn't affect me like that, but just coming off the bench is more comfortable for me just because I get to see the flow of the game and know what I have to come in and do," Bishop said. "And I think that's given me the extra push and the extra oomph to go out there and play harder."
Bishop's numbers, in Mitchell's mind, were great, but it's her effort that matters most. That effort shows up in three areas.
The first, says Mitchell, is on the offensive glass. On Sunday, Bishop tied for the team high with five offensive rebounds.
The next is on defense, where Mitchell says Bishop must be focused and in a stance for her and her team to be at their best. She was against Belmont, and those seven combined blocks and steals prove it.
Last, Mitchell wants Bishop running the floor. Her speed has the ability to change the game by creating transition opportunities and, just as importantly, affecting the opponent. Bishop sprinted constantly against the Bruins, helping the Cats turn a three-point lead with less than 15 minutes left into a 16-point win.
"I thought Belmont did a great job, but you saw it started to wear them down," Mitchell said.
Whether Bishop continues to come off the bench or returns to the starting lineup, she's going to need to duplicate that going forward. Over the next month, UK will face bruising frontcourts against the likes of No. 13 Duke and top-ranked South Carolina.
The Cats won't be outmuscling those teams, but they can outrun them with Bishop pacing them.
"We can't just go toe to toe," Mitchell said. "We've gotta get the thing going up and down and that one for Azia, just running the floor and making people run back and making people expend energy to get back and guard us, it's very important."
Alexis Jennings had 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Middle Tennessee on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The ball came to Alexis Jennings outside the arc.
The 6-foot-2 freshman had already scored four straight points for Kentucky by then and she didn't hesitate when she received the pass from Makayla Epps.
Watching Jennings set up to take the shot, Jennifer O'Neill, concerned over how Matthew Mitchell might react if it didn't go in, wasn't so sure.
"I'm glad she hit it because if she didn't he wouldn't have been too happy," O'Neill said, laughing.
Jennings, however, would calmly sink the shot. And as it turns out, Mitchell couldn't have been happier with the development.
"I was so happy that 3 went in because I'm hoping that gives her some confidence," Mitchell said.
Jennings would follow the 3 with two more made free throws, meaning she closed the first half on a personal 9-1 run. Thanks to her, UK turned a tenuous seven-point lead on visiting Middle Tennessee into a comfortable 41-26 margin heading into the halftime locker room on the way to a 78-62 win. The No. 8 Wildcats won their fifth straight game to move to 9-1 on the season.
"I'm proud of our players and we just need to stay humble and hungry and keep getting better," said Mitchell, who won his 100th career game in Memorial Coliseum on Friday night. "This was a great win for us tonight."
No player showed more improvement than Jennings. Coming in, the Madison, Ala., native had scored just 14 points after a 10-point performance in her college debut. But against the Blue Raiders, she scored a career-high 11.
"It's been real rough for me right now about being in the post and finishing all my moves," Jennings said, "but tonight I just focused and I just played really hard and everything that we did in practice just came together and I was able to contribute today."
She contributed in more ways than just scoring too.
Jennings checked in at the 12:20 mark of the first half, at which point UK led just 16-14. She would play all but two minutes to close the half, grabbing six rebounds and three on the offensive end.
"I was so pleased because it was a very close game and I thought her energy on the offensive glass really kind of started a big spurt for us that we were able to get distance in between us and Middle Tennessee State," Mitchell said. "Very good half for Alexis. We just need to keep plugging and working and she has to keep a great attitude and keep getting better. But she can help us."
Jennings came to Kentucky a highly touted post prospect and has shown glimpses of her potential, but never quite so much as Friday night.
"Well, that's what I think she can be," Mitchell said. "I think she can be that kind of player. She's practicing OK; we just need to keep working with her. But she showed you tonight some things that she can do."
Jennings chalked up her big night to improved self-belief she brought to the game. After it paid off - and she buried the second 3-pointer or her college career - that only figures to grow.
"I just played," Jennings said. "I had confidence tonight and I think that's what carried over into my play today."
Matthew Mitchell seemingly has two teams on his hands.
There's the one that makes him say things like this: "This group is just not naturally competitive."
And then the one that makes him say this two sentences later: "But, they clearly are competitive because when they get into the situation that's sort of desperate, they come out swinging and lock in and get going."
The two Kentuckys have combined for an 8-1 record to start the 2014-15 season, including a pair of wins over top-10 reams, but not without causing their coach a serious dose of stress.
The Wildcats, lacking "competitive fire" out of the gates on multiple occasions, have fallen behind by 14 points against No. 8 Baylor, nine points against Oklahoma and USF and 16 at No. 7 Louisville. But each time, they've managed to claw their way back from seemingly dire circumstances to win.
Mitchell, thankful as he is that UK has had the fortitude to pull it off each time, wants the habit to end.
"I just think they understand that there is an immediate threat and so they respond," Mitchell said. "When there is 17 minutes left in the first half, they think, 'Hey, maybe we have time to respond,' and I'm just saying that that's not a sustainable course of action. We can't be the team that we want to be with that kind of attitude."
Since the latest slow start that set up a big comeback - UK's fourth straight win over rival U of L - the Cats have gone to work trying to shift that attitude. To that end, Mitchell has structured practices leading up to a matchup with Middle Tennessee (4-2) at 9 p.m. ET on Friday to be as competitive as possible from the outset.
"You've got to get them to a spot where it's ultra-competitive and see who is ready to roll and who is not and try to make sure that we are practicing with a sense of urgency so that hopefully we can start the game with a great sense of urgency and maintain that," Mitchell said.
To that end, Mitchell is considering tweaking his starting five of Janee Thompson, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Azia Bishop that he has used in all nine games this season.
"We won't just stay with it to stay with it because that's how we've started," Mitchell said. "It's very much a situation to where right now every minute is up for grabs in a competitive situation in practice and if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, it's on you because we are being very clear on what needs to be happening in practice."
It would be one thing for Mitchell to hold his team to such a high standard if the Cats hadn't shown they can play that way, but they obviously have. Their No. 8 national ranking and No. 1 RPI proves that. Now it's about evening out the effort.
"We know what we are capable of doing," Mitchell said. "We know we can play some good basketball. We also know that when we are not focused, we can play some bad basketball, so just trying to get that consistent mentality of attacking and being aggressive and being tough and being competitive. That's what we have tried to do in practice."
Middle Tennessee will offer the next test on that front, and it won't be an easy one. The Blue Raiders have played among the nation's most difficult schedules and have won their last two games against Clemson and Xavier by a combined 63 points.
"It's going to be a very tough game," Mitchell said. "It always is with Middle Tennessee. They're a very good team, always tough and always able to score the basketball and well-coached. Coach (Rick) Insell does a great job with Middle Tennessee State and this is another good team. It's a huge challenge for us tomorrow night."
Janee Thompson might want to consider campaigning for UK to play more games in the KFC Yum! Center.
She seems to do pretty well there.
After leading a comeback from 14 points down and hitting the game-winning two years ago at Louisville, Thompson put on another second-half show against UK's archival on Saturday. The junior point guard poured in 16 of her 19 points after halftime, headlining a rally from 15 points down with just 18:01 left as No. 7 UK (8-1) topped the Cardinals (8-1), 77-68.
Thompson was clutch throughout, hitting the free throw that gave UK its first lead at 59-58 and the game-tying 3 with 3:03 left after the Cardinals had reclaimed a three-point lead to start a decisive 14-2 run to close the game.
She didn't miss a shot in the second half, deftly (and speedily) running UK's offense in the second half. The Cats shot just 36.4 percent from the field in the first half as a team, but 55.6 percent in the second to race past the previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked Cardinals.
Thompson was also at the top of UK's swarming pressure defense and snagged four steals. UK forced Louisville into 15 second-half turnovers and 28 for the game. Even when the Cardinals did manage to initiate their half-court offense, they found little room to operate, shooting 24.1 percent from the field after halftime.
The victory was UK's fourth in a row over Louisville, meaning fourth-year seniors Azia Bishop and Bria Goss, who scored 11 points in a team-high 35 minutes, have never lost to the Cardinals.