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.
Matthew Mitchell has never changed his thoughts on the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but he has come to talk about it differently.
He's always seen UK-U of L as one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule, a game deserving of hype and a big-time atmosphere. The difference now that he's in his eighth season is he feels no need to try to convince anyone.
"When I was younger - and hopefully I'm wiser than I was when I started out, I was also a different person - I said some bad things about the rivalry to try and get it spiced up and everything," Mitchell said. "Over the years, you don't have to do that anymore."
You see, UK and U of L have established themselves among the nation's elite. The Wildcats and Cardinals are fixtures in the top 15, and that will be the case again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET when the two teams face off at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
"The players understand that it's a big game on our side," Mitchell said. "It's a big game. I think that's great that it's a rivalry game and people get excited about it and I'm sure there is going to be a large crowd there, and so I think the games have been pretty tough."
There's no reason to think that will change as UK (7-1) enters the latest matchup ranked No. 13, while U of L (7-0) is No. 7. The Cats have won the last three games played between the two teams.
"I think it's going to be an outstanding game," Mitchell said. "I just want us to go over there, have our minds right and play real, real hard against what looks like a real fine basketball team that U of L has."
Louisville seemed likely to take a step back last season without star Shoni Schimmel, who graduated after a decorated career. Watching tape on the Cardinals, that's not what Mitchell sees.
"It's a very, very strong basketball team with some great players that as usual, are very well coached," Mitchell said. "Their performance last night vs. Iowa was extremely impressive."
Louisville dispatched the No. 22 Hawkeyes unceremoniously, taking a 23-point lead by halftime and finishing off an 86-52 win on Thursday. Senior Sara Hammond scored 19 points, while standout freshman and leading scorer Myisha Hines-Allen added 16 points.
"This is nothing against Shoni, but after watching them (Thursday) night, that was one of the most impressive performances that I've seen from them in now eight years," Mitchell said. "I was really impressed with how they played. They have a lot of different weapons."
Nine Cardinals play at least 13.5 minutes per game and four average double figures in scoring, including Hines-Allen, Hammond and freshman Mariya Moore, whom Mitchell called "legit."
"They're just really big and athletic and they played so aggressive," Mitchell said. "They looked so cohesive and it was a very impressive performance to watch on tape this morning. It looked like they are really playing together. They are extremely explosive in transition, very disruptive on defense. They played a lot of man-to-man (Thursday) night and gave Iowa a tremendous amount of problems."
The Cats, of course, are perfectly capable of causing problems too.
UK remains a work in progress, particularly in the post where Mitchell relies on three players who are playing their first college season, but the Cats have already taken down one top-10 opponent this season, Baylor. To duplicate the feat, Mitchell believes there's a clear path for his team to follow.
"I think intensity is going to be the main thing for us," Mitchell said. "We can't do a whole lot in two days as far as sharpening some of the things that we need to sharpen. There are some things that we're doing well. We are running the floor well, and we have some speed and can get up and down the court and try and stress a team by tempo and pace. We are capable of that, and we are sure going to try to see if we can get that done and play to our strengths until we can really get sharp."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers had a quiet trip to the beach last week, at least offensively.
Managing just nine points on UK's three-game voyage to the Virgin Islands, including just one in her final two games combined, Goodin-Rogers had gone cold after a strong start to her college career.
She had to come home to chilly Kentucky to heat back up.
Goodin-Rogers poured in a game-high 19 points, including 16 in the first half of an 82-64 Kentucky win over Northern Kentucky. In fact, she exceeded her previous career high less than eight minutes in.
"She was aggressive to start offensively and when she gets in a rhythm and can make some 3s for us and get to the basket and play with some energy offensively in transition, she can help us out," Matthew Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers was the star in an otherwise sluggish start for the Wildcats, who moved to 7-1 on Wednesday ahead of a Sunday trip to archrival Louisville. She scored 13 of UK's first 19 points to help build an early nine-point lead, capped by the first of her two 3-pointers.
She didn't waste any time surpassing her point total from the Virgin Islands games, but she also wasn't overly concerned about her offense from last week. Facing powerful front lines against the likes of Illinois and Oklahoma, she knew her role on UK's Thanksgiving trip.
"In the Virgin Islands I was more focused on defense than I was on offense because I needed to rebound more because the girls were so big," Goodin-Rogers said. "And tonight I was able to just play instead of focusing on one little thing."
Goodin-Rogers certainly played in her return to Memorial Coliseum, but she and her fellow post players still have room for growth.
Among UK's regular interior rotation, only Azia Bishop had played a college game entering this season. As a result, Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings have suffered more than anyone from the game slippage that comes from so little early-season practice time with a packed schedule.
"We've just got to take advantage of some practice time and get better in the half-court," Mitchell said. "Our post players are seeing a lot of packed lanes and we're not reading those situations real well in the half-court."
That places an added importance on the three days of practice UK will have leading up to a matchup with No. 7 Louisville.
"I thought tonight we were a bit unfocused and we can't play our best when we play that way," Mitchell said. "We played well enough to win tonight and you can't take that victory away from us, but clearly we have to play much sharper. I think their confidence level can increase between now and then with some good practice."
Two weeks into the season, Kentucky is one of just three teams with a win over a top-10 opponent.
To go with that victory against then-No. 8 Baylor, the Wildcats have two more home wins and another on the road against a Central Michigan expected to contend for a conference championship.
But for UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell, it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
"We are off to a 4-0 start and it's good results for us," Mitchell said, "but we really, really need to get better as a basketball team."
During Thanksgiving week, the ninth-ranked Cats will have ample opportunity to do just that while getting some literal sunshine along the way.
Starting on Thursday, UK will play in the Paradise Jam Island Tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Cats left for the U.S. Virgin Islands (forecast 81 degrees and sunny on Thanksgiving Day) early Tuesday morning for a trip where they'll mix basketball and some tourist activities.
First up, UK will face Illinois, off to 4-0 start identical to the Cats', at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. Next is 3-0 Oklahoma (receiving votes in the AP Top 25) on Friday at 6 p.m. with USF (3-1) to close it out on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
"Three games against three really quality opponents in three days will be a tough task down in the Virgin Islands," Mitchell said. "It's a great trip; it's a great tournament."
For UK to most effectively capitalize, Mitchell has one thing on his mind above all else.
"From a basketball standpoint right now, we are really needing to improve defensively," Mitchell said. "You can be a good defensive team if you give consistent effort. You're a great defensive team if you give consistent effort along with consistent fundamentals and technique. We are neither one of those right now."
More than anything else, it was the second half of UK's win at Central Michigan that had him thinking that way.
After a solid first half, the Cats built a lead that ballooned to 20 points with 16:13 left. The Chippewas would chip away from there, missing a would-be game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds as UK survived, 71-68. CMU shot 44.8 percent from the field in the second half after the Cats held them to 28.6 in the first.
"A lot of energy in the first half, a lot of focus in the first half, a lot of disruption," Mitchell said. "And in the second half, it was very little attention to detail, very little energy defensively."
Mitchell, though he's demanding improvement, isn't concerned. Bumps in the road, especially this early in the season, are to be expected. What the Cats can't do is become satisfied with a little early-season success.
"We can't take the approach of, 'Well, we beat Baylor and we're a highly ranked team and so we just show up and take the floor,' " Mitchell said. "That's not our formula. Our formula is being honest with ourselves, working really hard and having some discipline. I think that the players, once they see the visual evidence, they'll get it corrected."
With that in mind, Mitchell will be looking for a few simple things as he coaches his team this week.
"If we do nothing else, we're just Kentucky tough and Kentucky tenacious and playing together and being the fastest, most disruptive, toughest team we can be in that tournament," Mitchell said. "If we can accomplish those goals, the technique and the positioning and those kind of mistakes will start to work itself out."