UK Hoops will open the SEC Tournament on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
College basketball teams, by and large, are judged by how they perform in the postseason.
Take Wichita State's men's team as an example. If the Shockers are bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, their unbeaten regular season will be viewed in a different light.
But when Matthew Mitchell considers how he'll remember his current Kentucky team, he doesn't need March to measure its worth.
"They've already shown me that they're a team," Mitchell said. "You can't do what they've done and you'll never be able to convince me that these kids aren't a team."
UK has had more successful regular seasons under Mitchell. In fact, the Wildcats' 22-7 record entering the postseason ties their worst in the last five years.
However, the way his team closed the regular season told Mitchell everything he needs to know.
A little more than three weeks ago, UK was 17-6 with losses in five of its previous nine games. The Cats were 5-5 in Southeastern Conference play with star senior DeNesha Stallworth still trying to rediscover her pre-injury form.
Since then, Kentucky has won five of six to earn the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The stretch includes road wins over top-25 opponents Tennessee and Texas A&M and the only loss was at the hands of league champion South Carolina.
"We've learned a lot, but I think that would be the biggest thing is it would have been very easy for us to say, 'Hey, we've had injuries, the ball is not going in the basket or we're suffering bad breaks,' and play the excuse game," Mitchell said.
Rather than play that excuse game, the Cats took a hard look in the mirror.
Adjusting to a new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play, Kentucky saw the full-court pressure defense that had lifted its program to unprecedented heights take a step back in 2013-14. There would be games where the Cats would look like their former selves, but consistency escaped them.
"I couldn't get figured out things on the floor," Mitchell said. "You can't touch the offense, but the offense can touch you. And so, we've had a struggle at guarding legally and that's my part for not figuring that out beforehand."
Mitchell's mea culpa belies the fact that he hardly ignored the new rules emphasis in the preseason.
"I just thought we were going to be at advantage because I kept hearing people say, 'Hey, you gotta back off, you gotta back off,' " Mitchell said. "And so what we did is we worked so hard. We worked harder on our footwork and harder than we ever have because we weren't going to change. We brought in officials before the year. They said, 'Gosh, you guys look great.' "
That didn't translate exactly as Mitchell hoped it would. In conference play, UK is forcing just 17.1 turnovers per game, a stark contrast to a season ago when the Cats' SEC opponents committed 21.7 turnovers per game. Meanwhile, UK has been whistled for 21.1 fours per game in SEC play this season, up from 18.6 last year.
The effect of UK's full-court press neutralized, Mitchell has had to reevaluate the way his team plays defense. UK's 81-58 loss to South Carolina was the final straw of sorts on that front.
"We have to do something different when we see a team like that, and we may see them (at the SEC Tournament) and we have to play differently than we did out here and that's totally on me and I have to get that done," Mitchell said.
"Now, I've had to change," Mitchell said on Wednesday, "and they looked really good this morning in some defenses that we wouldn't normally see a typical Kentucky team playing and so they're real good defenders, but I was slow to change there and that's totally on me and my fault."
With all the success Kentucky had had with the "40 minutes of dread" defense, it's understandable that it's taken some time for Mitchell to move away from it. It would have been also been understandable had the Cats taken a while to adjust to the shift, but they are fully on board whether UK is in full-court man-to-man press, half-court zone or anything in between.
"I think there was a lot of expectations placed on our team," Mitchell said. "We certainly embraced those at the beginning of the season, so when you go through some of the struggles that we went through, as a coach, I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to change or make the necessary changes. I think it shows a lot about our players, their character and how hard they worked and really, really proud of this group."
That won't change based on what happens in the postseason, which starts for UK on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET against either Florida or Mississippi State. That doesn't mean the Cats won't be giving the SEC Tournament all they've got.
"We're going to go down there and we're going to try to be the tightest, most together team at the tournament and we're not going to worry about anybody else and we're just try to go out and have a very good game plan for Friday afternoon, whoever that is, and play our hearts out and see where that gets us," Mitchell said.
Some coaches may view conference tournaments as just another step en route to the NCAA Tournament, but not Mitchell. UK is headed to Duluth, Ga., with every intention of making it to Sunday and winning.
"It's a fantastic event," he said. "I've always said if you win this tournament, you've identified yourself as a very, very good basketball team. We'll have to play well and play hard and see if we can keep advancing in the tournament."
DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points in her final regular-season home game on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
With two players -- DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- who have transformed Kentucky's style of play celebrating their Senior Day on Sunday, Matthew Mitchell drew up an appropriate game plan.
Facing a smaller Vanderbilt team, Mitchell called for the Wildcats to throw the ball into the post early and often.
"Coach pretty much told the guards in practice -- even during the game -- that we have an advantage on the inside," Stallworth said. "So that was really our big emphasis and the high-low was very important."
Capitalizing on her opportunities, Stallworth scored a game-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting as No. 12/15 UK withstood Vandy in a 65-63 victory in Memorial Coliseum.
Walker, meanwhile, had just two points to go with her eight rebounds, but had four assists in often serving as the passer in UK's high-low attack against the Commodore zone. Three of those assists resulted in Stallworth baskets.
"I think me and Samarie, we play well together for the most part," Stallworth said. "So we were trying to take advantage of our size and get the ball inside."
UK (22-7, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) used that approached to build a first-half lead of as many as 17 points, but Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9 SEC) rallied when the two post players went to the bench with fouls. Walker picked up her second with 9:51 left and Stallworth did the same a little more than six minutes later.
"I thought when DeNesha (Stallworth) and Samarie (Walker) went to the bench that we just didn't have much inside presence, and that's where our advantage was," Mitchell said. "You really needed to get tough in there and make some decisions and get some reads against their 2-3 zone."
Vandy went on an 18-2 run and eventually trailed just 36-33 at the break. It would be a back-and-forth battle from that point on, with neither team leading by five until the final minute.
At that point, the Commodores made one final push. Vandy used a 3 by Christina Foggie, a steal and two Foggie free throws throws to close to within one with less than 15 seconds to go. Bria Goss (12 points) then hit one-of-two free throws before UK used solid defense to force a Jasmine Jenkins miss in the closing seconds.
"I'm going to tell you, this team worked so hard to get ready for today's game," Mitchell said. "I thought we had a few terrific moments and really made it tough on Vanderbilt, but at the end of the day, to be able to walk off that floor with a victory on Senior Day, there are not many better feelings than that."
The victory gives UK five in its last six games, an impressive feat considering the Cats' position at the start of that stretch. Kentucky then sat at 5-5 in conference play having lost five of nine games and facing a crisis of confidence. Now, UK will head to the SEC Tournament in Duluth, Ga., with a double bye as the No. 4 seed and a renewed sense of self-assurance entering its opener on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET.
"Four Sundays ago we were 5-5 and here we are still a No. 4 seed and I think that takes a lot of toughness and encouragement and support," Goss said. "I think that we really buckled down and got it together."
To Stallworth, togetherness is the most important word.
"I think us staying together was most important because it just would have been easy for everybody to go their separate ways and just say, 'You know, forget this,' " she said. "But I think we did a great job of just staying positive and just knowing that we have more opportunities ahead of us and we've just come together. That's why we're winning these games."
By closing with a win, UK sends off Stallworth, Walker, Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett with a win in their final regular-season home game, which was Mitchell's goal more than postseason positioning.
"Our focus and our sense of purpose came from trying to make sure we won for the seniors today," Mitchell said. "That was our focus today. We didn't really worry about seeding in the SEC Tournament."
A year from now, it will be Goss embracing her family before her final home game. That thought struck her as she watched her teammates do the same and she intends to carry it forward into what's ahead for UK.
"I just learned I'm a junior and next year I'm going to be a senior and how fast these seasons are going," Goss said. "I just want to send these seniors out right and go down to Duluth and just put on a show and just fight for them and leave it all on the court."
UK will honor Kastine Evans and three fellow seniors on Senior Day this Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Every senior class is unique, but the group UK Hoops will honor as part of its annual Senior Day festivities is special
The four Wildcats who comprise the class -- Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth -- come from all corners.
"As basketball players they are very productive and really helped us change the program," Mitchell said. "And then all four of them have very unique stories and have contributed in my life all four in different ways but very impactful ways and I've learned a lot from these seniors and they've been very important people to me and will remain that."
There's Evans, the guard from Norwich, Conn., whom Matthew Mitchell calls a "gift from God."
"I was impressed with her and excited when we signed her but I don't that you can ever anticipate somebody being as strong as she is in just every area of her life," Mitchell said. "She's a very high-character young woman, has a sense of purpose, wants people that she's around to do well."
Mitchell is hard-pressed to think of a player who has maximized her time in Lexington more than Evans. She has contributed from day one on the court, filling every role from sixth man to power forward without a moment's hesitation. Off the floor, she's been honored for both her academics and her service in the community.
Her coach admires Evans so much he said he'd like for his two young daughters to emulate her.
"I think it's important for all of us if we want to really accomplish something we have to enter into the process with intention of doing very well and she's always been very intentional about achieving and very conscientious," Mitchell said. "My life is so much richer and better because she's been in it and is in it and will remain in it."
Pinkett will remain a part of Mitchell's life as well, in addition to occupying a special place in his heart for the way she's overcome the odds.
"If you think about the neighborhood she's from in (Washington,) D.C., two percent of the kids attempt college and less than one percent of the kids out of her neighborhood get a college degree. And so just the fact that she got here and made it and is going to walk across that stage," said an emotional Mitchell before pausing to compose himself, "on May the 10th is something else."
Walker and Stallworth -- two transfers from West Carrolton, Ohio, and Richmond Calif., respectively -- round out the class.
The two McDonald's All-Americans had well-established basketball pedigrees before their arrival on campus. Walker came to Kentucky after a semester at perennial power UConn, while Stallworth was an All-Pac 10 performer at California before deciding to leave her home on the West Coast.
Though the duo that has patrolled the paint together these last two seasons didn't have a full four years in Lexington, Walker and Stallworth are no less a part of the program and school they've represented.
"So they were here quite a bit of time and invested a lot in the program and we were fortunate that they transferred to Kentucky because at the time they came here we weren't really in the mix on kids like that, of that talent level and that ability level and so they have put up some huge numbers and some big victories for us and they've both given a lot to the program," Mitchell said.
Their paths have been very different, but the four have their share of senior-year adversity in common.
Evans has dealt with a lingering leg injury for most of 2013-14, even sitting out a game in January. Pinkett, meanwhile, has coped with an ankle injury of her own while still playing catch-up following a trying offseason.
"Bernisha had a tough end of the year last year and a tough summer," Mitchell said. "Like I've said many times, it's just much more important for me to see her graduate and finish. Basketball sort of took a back seat for a while there and I just think it was difficult for her to ever fully get back to where she once was and that's OK."
Stallworth has faced a similar journey after knee surgery in December and is only now regaining the form that made her a preseason contender for every major award. She turned in her most dominant outing of the year on Thursday night, posting 16 points, 20 rebounds, four blocks and two steals to lead UK to an overtime win at Mississippi State.
"DeNesha certainly had a chance to use the injury as an excuse and not do the work to get back," Mitchell said. "There's been some times of frustration and some times of where we really had to soul search there for a while, but she's come around and worked hard."
Walker has stayed healthy, but the ride hasn't always been smooth for her either.
"I've had to learn a lot through coaching her about patience," Mitchell said. "She's been real hard on herself and she's sort of up and down and so that's sort of been a roller coaster we've been on together. That's been difficult at times, but you never questioned her heart for others and for people."
Everything his seniors have been through makes Mitchell want to send them off properly even more.
No. 12/15 UK (21-7, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) will host Vanderbilt (18-10, 7-8 SEC) with a chance to lock down the No. 4 seed and a double by in the SEC Tournament. That prospect is enticing, but Mitchell isn't thinking about that nearly as much as the four players who will play on their home floor for the final time in the regular season.
"So it's an important game but there's nothing more important to me than really preparing well and working hard to try to get ready for Vanderbilt so we can send these seniors off with a great victory," Mitchell said. "And obviously it has other implications that would be valuable to us as well, but we're really going to try to keep our focus on preparing well against a very good team and making sure that we have a sense of purpose for our seniors on Sunday."
UK will travel to Mississippi State for a matchup at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Last week was an interesting one for UK Hoops.
It began with a historic win at Tennessee, the program's first since 1985. Next was a lopsided home defeat at the hands of Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina. To finish it up, UK took down No. 16/13 Texas A&M on the road.
The up-and-down eight-day stretch begged a question.
"Can we get some consistency going?" UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Because that's really important. We've been winning one, losing one, winning one and losing one. That's certainly not what we want to do tomorrow night."
With two games left in the regular season - starting in Starkville, Miss., at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday -- the Wildcats are looking to put together a winning streak. Wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt would assure UK (20-7, 8-6 SEC) of a double bye in the SEC Tournament -- certainly motivation enough -- but that's not why the games are so important in Mitchell's mind.
"I think still what we're trying to focus on is this team really rounding into form and being its best," Mitchell said. "We're getting close to a part of the season, if you win one then lose one, your season is over, so we're trying to build some consistency here at the end of the season."
In search of that consistency, Mitchell is asking for steadiness from individual players.
First on the list is Makayla Epps, who has emerged late in the season as an option at point guard.
In the loss to South Carolina, Epps was one of UK's lone bright spots, posting a career-high 16 points. She followed that up with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers against Texas A&M.
"She did a really good job on Sunday, so now what you're looking for is some consistency and you need to bounce back with another good game," Mitchell said. "It's going to be another big challenge just like it was in College Station. We'll just see if she can build on the performance."
Looking to do the same will be Jelleah Sidney, who had seven points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as part of an unconventional crunch-time lineup against the Aggies that also featured freshmen Epps and Linnae Harper.
"You know Jelleah can make plays, you know she can do some things of great value we just need her to do those things consistently well," Mitchell said. "What I always love about her is her energy and her effort. She sure gave us that on Sunday and she'll have to tomorrow night. This will be a tough, tough game for us."
Mississippi State (18-10, 5-9 SEC) has Mitchell's undivided attention, clearly. The Bulldogs are 13-3 on their home floor and have been competitive throughout SEC play. Of their nine losses in conference, all but one has come by 10 points or fewer and two in overtime.
"Mississippi State has been really good at home this year," Mitchell said. "They are a very aggressive defensive team, really hard-nosed and tough competitors, make it difficult on you to score and one of the real premier frontcourts in the league."