Matthew Mitchell leads UK into two road games in New York to open the 2013-14 season this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Rarely one to sing his own praises, Matthew Mitchell admits he didn't have a grand plan for his team's season-opening schedule.
With so many considerations at play -- from multi-year contracts to venue and opponent availability -- simply coming up with dates on which Kentucky can face the teams it wants to was difficult enough.
But now that Mitchell sees how the schedule has come together -- with a two-game season-opening road swing, including the Wildcats' 2013-14 debut at perennial NCAA Tournament team Marist -- he realizes it all ended up working out well.
"I think there is tremendous benefit by starting the season with a team that we feel like can be very good and can be challenged the opening night," Mitchell said. "We could be here in Memorial Coliseum and playing a team that is not of the quality or caliber of Marist and not be nearly as challenged."
With a matchup against the Red Foxes, who are receiving votes in both major polls, looming on Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., preparation for the No. 7/8 Wildcats has had an added edge.
"Practices have been different and the sense of urgency to get prepared has been different, which are all good things," Mitchell said. "If we don't talk to each other and if we don't play with tremendous defensive fundamentals and if we don't really have a sharp mental focus then it will be trouble."
Over the past four seasons, UK has won its season openers by an average of 36 points and three of the four games were played in the comforts of home. Duplicating that feat against a Brian Giorgis-coached Marist team that was down single digits late in the second half against UK last season won't be easy.
The change, though certainly a challenge, is welcome.
"We're fortunate to play such a great team at the beginning of the season," junior guard Bria Goss said. "Marist is very fundamentally sound. It will be a very good test to see where we are at early in season."
UK's first test came in its lone exhibition against Eckerd College last Sunday. The Cats won comfortably, 83-35, but the visitors did Kentucky a favor by effectively using backdoor cuts against Mitchell's signature high-pressure defense.
"Eckerd gave us a real gift from that standpoint," Mitchell said. "That's what our focus has been, trying to really focus on our defensive fundamentals. Marist is such a good motion offense team and you don't know exactly what they're going to do."
After Marist, UK will stay in the Empire State ahead of a game at Wagner on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. The Cats will also take advantage of a free Saturday in one of the world's greatest cities.
"We get to spend a little time in New York City on Saturday and that'll be good for our players from that region," Mitchell said.
UK's Jelleah Sidney and Jennifer O'Neill are both from the Big Apple, while Bernisha Pinkett (Washington, D.C.) and Kastine Evans (Salem, Conn.) are from the Northeast as well and will have family in town to watch them.
The sightseeing and visits with family will be nice, but this weekend is a business trip for UK Hoops, one that Mitchell hopes will pay dividends both immediately and in the future.
"It's a great, great thing to go to Marist and have to prepare for all that, so I think it will do nothing but benefit our team down the road," Mitchell said. "I'm excited about the opportunity and we'll have to play well to win."
Twelve different Wildcats scored in UK's 83-35 exhibition win over Eckerd College on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Entering the 2013-14 season, the biggest question about this Kentucky team was how it would replace the production of A'dia Mathies.
Would a single player emerge in a featured role? Would UK's post players step up and fill the void? Could the Wildcats break through to the Final Four without Mathies, the second-leading scorer in school history?
After UK's lone exhibition -- an 83-35 win over Eckerd College -- the answers remain unclear. But in the end, these Cats believe the biggest challenge facing them this season could eventually turn into their greatest strength, provided they approach it the right way.
"I think that difference between the past teams and this year's team is honestly we don't have a star player on the team this year, whereas the past few years we had A'dia," Samarie Walker said, viewing a perceived negative as a positive.
Throughout her career, Mathies served as a safety blanket for Matthew Mitchell's teams. When plays broke down, Mathies stepped up. When UK needed a basket in a crucial moment, the ball went to Mathies.
This season, the Cats plan to share those burdens equally. They think they will be all the better for it.
"I think any given day or night, anybody can have a good game, a great game." said Walker, who had 12 points and six rebounds.
Against Eckerd, 12 Wildcats saw the floor. They all played at least nine minutes and registered at least two rebounds as UK charged to a 55-35 edge on the glass.
"That was one of the main focuses of the game was rebounding, especially offensive rebounding," Walker said. "And I think this team is definitely tough. This is one of the most competitive teams I've ever been on and I think that's definitely something we focus on in practice and it's something we want to focus on for the whole season."
UK's competitiveness was on display from the opening tip, as the Cats held Eckerd without a point until the 9:18 mark of the first half. Kentucky would go on to force 41 turnovers on the afternoon, hardly a surprise to any of the 2,314 fans in Memorial Coliseum accustomed to such dominant defensive displays.
"I thought they worked extremely hard and played really hard," Mitchell said. "It was not the prettiest game that we have ever played here or probably end up playing this season, but I thought they gave great effort."
The game was far from a work of art because of UK's struggles in the half-court. In spite of repeated good looks at the basket, the Cats shot just 30 for 81 (37.0 percent) from the field and 4 of 27 from 3-point range.
"It was a tough shooting day and everybody can see that it was not out best shooting day," Mitchell said. "We have shot the ball really well in the preseason so it is not something that I am too terribly concerned about and really we have practiced in Memorial yesterday and this morning and that is my fault."
Mitchell and the Cats believe the shooting will come around, which is why they were more encouraged than anything else following the exhibition win. UK has balance, competitiveness and, in spite of the absence of a star, a world of potential as it prepares to start the season on the road at Marist on Nov. 8.
"When our whole team contributes, we're a situation, we're a problem," said DeNesha Stallworth, UK's leading scorer with 17 points. "It's tough to beat us."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers will miss the 2013-14 season after being diagnosed with a blood clot this week. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was coming down the stretch of her first preseason as a college basketball player. In practice, the talent of the highly touted freshman forward was on display and she had just begun making a strong case for immediate playing time.
But just a week before UK's exhibition against Eckerd, Goodin-Rogers experienced chest pains. After reporting her symptoms to Senior Athletic Trainer Courtney Jones, she was taken to the Albert B. Chandler Hospital and diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism in her lungs.
Just like that, she went from looking forward to her collegiate debut to having her freshman season cut short before it even really began.
"You can imagine coming to play at Kentucky has been something she's been looking forward to doing for so long, and to work so hard during the summer and work harder than you've ever worked before, then you get right here to the beginning of the season and it's taken away from you," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It's a very difficult set of circumstances for her."
As trying as the situation may be, Mitchell is grateful it wasn't any worse.
"I think in the end, for her, it's great that she communicated with our training staff and medical staff, so we could identify a serious problem," Mitchell said. "We'll work real hard with her to find a positive way out of this and we certainly believe there is a positive outcome."
Goodin-Rogers immediately began undergoing blood-thinning treatments to address the blood clot, a process that is expected to last several months. For that reason, she will not play this season. She will, however, continue to take classes and spend plenty of time around the team.
"I think we can expect a range of emotions here early on," Mitchell said. "She's trying to have a really positive attitude through this very difficult situation."
Exhibition offers opportunity to test style with new officiating guidelines
Asked by a reporter what he wanted to see out of his team in UK's lone exhibition against Eckerd College at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Mitchell gave an answer anyone who has watched his program in recent seasons would expect.
"I want us to play 40 minutes of really up-tempo basketball," Mitchell said.
In other words, he wants to see the "40 minutes of dread" style of play that has come to define UK Hoops in practice.
"I want our point guards, and really all our players, to really push the ball on offense and try to get as many layups as we can and put a lot of pressure on Eckerd in transition," Mitchell said. "I'd love to see that and I want to see us play tenacious defense without fouling."
Mitchell's mention of defending without fouling is a timely one, because the NCAA-mandated officiating guidelines regarding physical play that have been such a hot topic with the men's game extend to the women as well.
Considering UK's reliance on full-court pressure, Mitchell will be keeping a close watch on the way Sunday's game is called.
"Those kinds of things, you are anxious to see called and what adjustments you have to make," Mitchell said. "We've been working really hard on playing defense with our feet and being fundamentally sound in our position and technique."
Preseason rankings show difficulty of UK's schedule
On Friday, the Associated Press released its preseason poll and the Wildcats check in at No. 7, one spot ahead of their No. 8 ranking in the coaches' poll.
UK's ranking will be put to the test early and often this season. The Cats will face eight teams ranked in the preseason AP top 25: No. 2 Duke, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Louisville, No. 10 Baylor, No. 15 LSU, No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 22 South Carolina and No. 24 Georgia.
Kentucky's December schedule will particularly trying, as the Cats will take on three top-10 teams -- Duke, U of L and Baylor -- along with DePaul, who is receiving votes, from Dec. 1-22.
Matthew Mitchell interacts with a fan at the Big Blue Madness campout. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell normally has no issue coming up with answers to questions lobbed at him by reporters, but he was stopped in his tracks as he made the rounds at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
"I was down in Birmingham last week, and the league, we were doing some different things for media day," Mitchell said on Tuesday, "and we were doing some promotional work to promote women's basketball and doing one of these commercials, and the league asked me to describe myself in one word."
Searching for a response, Mitchell began thinking of how the important people in his life would describe him. Naturally, his wife came to mind first.
"So I started thinking, how would Jenna describe me in one word, and I thought about that for a second and I quickly moved on because I didn't want to use that," Mitchell said to laughs.
His players were next, and he joked that words like "crazy," "nuts" and "not that smart" would likely be first on their lists. Again, not what he was looking for.
Finally, Mitchell came up with an answer of his own.
"I landed on grateful," Mitchell said, "and I would describe myself this morning as very, very grateful to have a seventh opportunity to coach the Kentucky Wildcats."
Mitchell has accomplished things that no head coach in UK Hoops history has, but he credits others for his success. Above all, he's thankful to God. He appreciates the athletics department administration for hiring him and now supporting his program. He'll never forget the players who helped him build UK into a perennial contender.
"Players like Carly Morrow and Victoria Dunlap and Lydia Watkins and Amani Franklin, A'dia Mathies, those kind of kids that came in here and really did things not their own way, but they embraced the Kentucky way, which is honesty, hard work and discipline," Mitchell said. "Really grateful to them, and we find ourselves with this '13 '14 team in a great position to have an outstanding season, and so we would not have been able to do that with all the efforts of the people that have come before this team."
Those players also helped pave the way for UK's successful bid to host the First and Second Rounds of the NCAA Tournament in March, which is another reason for Mitchell to be grateful.
"You just don't write on a piece of paper we want to have the first and second round and you get it," Mitchell said. "A lot of people did a lot of hard work to get that done, and it is an incredible advantage."
UK has advanced to the Elite Eight in three of the last four seasons in spite of never enjoying that advantage. Of course, it's on the Wildcats to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, but the idea of playing two postseason games in Memorial Coliseum -- where UK has a 62-3 record over the last four seasons --is exciting to Mitchell and his players alike.
"I think the urgency would be 10 times more," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We know what it means to us, the fans know what it means to them and the way we play in front of our fans is so important. So just for them to be able to be there for us during those times is going to be beneficial."
On the day the news about the NCAA Tournament came down, Mitchell was otherwise occupied. His wife gave birth to the couple's second daughter early in the morning on Oct. 9, giving Mitchell yet another reason to step back and count his blessings.
"We had a little baby, Pressly Blue, six pounds, 12 ounces, future shooting guard here at Kentucky if they don't fire me before then," Mitchell said. "She is doing well. Jenna is doing well. Our family is just so blessed. We thank God for that, as well. Things are really good." Flexibility -- literally -- the key to Mitchell's Madness dance
Mitchell outdid himself once again at Big Blue Madness, channeling The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, before dancing to Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time."
Other than the wig he wore for the opening act, there was one particularly jaw-dropping moment from the performance that Mitchell addressed on Tuesday.
"The real issue, I think, just the elephant in the room, is everyone wants to know how did I do the split and how did I get to that position at 42 years old, and let me tell you, it was not easy to do," Mitchell said.
Just a few weeks ago, the move would have been impossible.
"So on October 1, I could barely just get into the position stationary," Mitchell said. "I was sitting on the floor and I was like, there's no way I can get this done."
With the help of UK dance team coach and choreographer Dawn Walters, Mitchell went to work.
"So over the next 17 days you see the results," Mitchell said. "I did the work, I stretched out, and we really -- the video before the dance would have been -- we could have sold that. I danced for about 45 minutes back in the dressing room to try to get my muscles loosened up to get the split, so we did the split, and that's really all that had to happen in the dance was the split."
With the splits behind him, Mitchell can rest again, at least until next October. Cats adjusting to early-morning practice
Habitually nocturnal media members had an early wakeup call on Tuesday, as Media Day activities began at 8 a.m. ET to account for UK's new morning practice schedule.
The change from afternoons to mornings was made to allow some of UK's five seniors to take classes needed for graduation and Mitchell hasn't noticed any issues coming along with it.
"They get started about 7:40 each morning," Mitchell said. "We huddle up and circle up and then get going after that. There's a lot of folks in the world going to work a lot earlier than that, so it's not all that tough. And the players have just handled it great."
The Cats have plenty of experience with hard work in the morning. In fact, in-season practices offer somewhat of a reprieve considering UK's summer schedule.
"They're up even earlier in the summer," Mitchell said. "It's unbelievable what our players do when they choose to come in and go through the voluntary workouts during the summer. They're up before 6 every morning training."
UK Hoops is in the midst of preparations for the 2013-14 season, which begins Nov. 8. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Take a quick look around the practice floor and you'll see seven former McDonald's All-Americans, multiple players with professional futures ahead of them and depth both inside and out.
Incredibly, that's the case in both the men's and women's gyms at the Joe Craft Center.
John Calipari might be the one with the reputation as the nation's top recruiter, but Matthew Mitchell is right on his friend and colleague's heels in terms of attracting blue-chip recruits. Year by year, as UK Hoops has ascended the ranks in the women's game, Mitchell has added to his team's pool of talent.
Entering the 2013-14 season, Mitchell -- at least on paper -- has his most gifted team to date.
"You know, what I love about our entire team is the talent level," Mitchell said at UK's Media Day on Tuesday, "and I don't know where we would land on the most talented team in the country, but we have a very, very talented team, and they are all mobile and agile and athletic."
In the post, UK returns starters Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth, who emerged as one of the top duos in the Southeastern Conference a season ago, to go with Azia Bishop, Samantha Drake and Jelleah Sidney. On the perimeter, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett and Janee Thompson give Mitchell one of the deepest groups anywhere.
And that doesn't even include the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history.
Mitchell adds freshmen Linnae Harper, Makalya Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers to the mix. Harper -- a 5-foot-8 guard from Chicago -- is the top-ranked recruit in UK Hoops history and was joined at the McDonald's All-American Game by Epps, the daughter of former Wildcat national champion Anthony.
"Our freshmen have been doing a great job," Stallworth said. "They've been improving daily and that's what we're looking for."
On a team with such an established veteran presence, newcomers as highly touted as UK's might fall victim to distress over immediate playing time, but not these three. They know featured roles are up for grabs in Mitchell's signature fast-paced style and, more importantly, they are putting team goals ahead of any individual concerns.
"Last night we had our tip off celebration with our booster club, and we talked to her and she addressed the crowd, and she said she's just here to help and she wants to win championships," Mitchell said of Epps. "So just a very humble attitude for a player of that caliber is exciting for a coach to see."
That kind of humility is a necessity for any UK freshman, particularly given the change in mentality required to play in Mitchell's 40 minutes of dread defense.
"Well, I have found this: They don't teach much defense at the McDonald's game," Mitchell said with a smile. "They're not working very hard on the defensive end of the floor, so some of the McDonald's All-Americans have a bit of an adjustment period when they get to Kentucky from that respect."
Sixteen practices in, Harper feels like she's on the right path.
"I really think it is all mental," Harper said. "It's really about the fundamentals of basketball. Just sticking to it and doing the little things and taking it step by step daily and putting all the pieces together and becoming a great team."
With that goal in mind, Mitchell has actually tweaked preseason preparations this season.
After an offseason of "self-evaluation" following a third Elite Eight loss in four seasons, Mitchell has put an unprecedented emphasis on offense. UK managed just 62 points per game on 31.6-percent shooting in the three season-ending defeats and the Cats are addressing that as they seek to break through to the Final Four.
"I just think that we need to make sure as coaches we give them enough opportunity to get to a spot where they, under pressure at the most important time, can execute," Mitchell said.
After a summer and fall of work, Mitchell sees a team that is "much further ahead" than it was this time a season ago on offense. The fact that players are taking their coach's cue away from formal team activities is helping matters as well.
"To begin with, we've all gotten in the gym a lot more," Goss said. "We'll see each other in the gym all throughout the day, sometimes even late at night ... whereas I didn't really see that my first two years."
UK, however, is targeting offensive improvement without its top scorer from a season ago. A'dia Mathies graduated in May and has gone on to a WNBA career, meaning the Cats no longer have the player they turned to when things broke down.
Mitchell says it's too early to tell whether one individual will emerge as a go-to player in her place, but he has an idea of who he'd like to end up taking over that mantle.
"From a coaching standpoint (getting) the ball to get to DeNesha Stallworth would be at the top of any list right now," Mitchell said. "I would want the ball in her hands just from a physical standpoint. She can make plays. I have a lot of confidence in a lot of the players, but I think DeNesha is probably the most gifted and talented offensive player that we have."
Stallworth, a preseason All-SEC selection, had a strong first season at UK after transferring from Cal, but Mitchell expects even more from the 6-3 forward in 2013-14.
"I think she ought to be one of the top 10 or 12 players in the country," Mitchell said. "I think she should be an All-American. I think she could work herself into the position of being a top-five draft choice."
Clearly, Mitchell has no shortage of belief in Stallworth. Now, she's working to follow suit.
"It makes you feel good and it makes you just realize, 'Hey, you can do it. If your coach believes in you, why can't you believe in yourself,' " Stallworth said. "I definitely appreciate him saying that and I'm definitely going to work hard to accomplish that goal."
The goals Mitchell has in mind for Stallworth mirror those he has for his team as a whole. There's no questioning the talent of Stallworth or her Kentucky team. Because of that, it won't take any kind of superhuman effort for them to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
"What we're focusing on this year is real, real simple concept," Mitchell said. "It's not going to be easy, but it's real simple. We just want to try to be our very best, and we talk about that virtually every day. If we can become our best, we can have a terrific season here at Kentucky."