Finals Finished, UK Shifts Focus to Duke

Starting his press conference on Friday, Matthew Mitchell sounded more like an academic counselor than a basketball coach.

“We’re looking for a strong semester academically,” Mitchell said. “They had to work hard this week, and we finished up last night. Maci Morris took her last one last night at 6. So the team’s done with exams. That clearly has been the main focus of this week.”

Mitchell has always made it clear that personal development is as important as growth on the court at Kentucky, which means school is a priority. So with finals taking place this week, the Wildcats have naturally been thinking about classwork even more than normal.

“I think this group really wants to do well, and they pay attention and they practice real hard,” Mitchell said. “It’s definitely and rightfully so, their mind has been on their studies and their exams. It’s such an important week.”

But with finals now finished, the week becomes important for another reason. On Sunday at 7 p.m., No. 8 UK (9-0) hosts No. 13/11 Duke (9-2) in Rupp Arena.

“They are an outstanding team,” Mitchell said. “Very, very talented. A well-coached team. And really, with a lot of players who played in the game last year (which Duke won, 89-68) returning, we had a bunch of problems. So it’s a real challenge for us.”

It’s a challenge that becomes even tougher coming off of finals week.

“Duke’s played a couple times this week with exams last week, so they’ve been in basketball mode,” Mitchell said. “So if that gives them an advantage then that’s one we’ll have to overcome. But our players are hungry and have worked hard.”

The Blue Devils have already dropped games to a pair of SEC opponents, but UK lacks the size of Texas A&M and South Carolina. To overcome that, it’s going to take keen focus.

“I think you’ve gotta disrupt to take them out of rhythm, but that’s easier to talk about up here than it is to do,” Mitchell said. “I think that doing your best to keep them offensively out of rhythm is really—gives you a chance to win because, boy, they can really score a lot of points.”

Duke is led by Azura Stevens and Rebecca Greenwell. Stevens – a 6-foot-6 guard/forward – is averaging 18.7 points and 9.6 rebounds, while Greenwell – an Owensboro, Ky., native recruited by Kentucky – scores 14.5 points per game. 

“I think that Stevens and Greenwell are a tremendous 1-2 punch that pose real problems, and the rest of the players are very talented and can do a lot of things offensively,” Mitchell said. “And defensively, just their size—a very big team. They’re disruptive with different combinations of zone and man-to-man, so just a really tough team. A big challenge for us.”

It’s a challenge the Cats might be better suited for than a season ago.

UK, responding to Mitchell’s offseason emphasis, is on an offensive pace ahead of any team in recent years. The Cats rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring, assists, field-goal shooting and 3-point shooting, which is unprecedented for a UK team known for defense under Mitchell.

UK’s offensive progress was on display the last time the Cats were in Rupp, as they shot better than 50 percent in dispatching archrival Louisville. Now, as they return to the legendary venue, the Cats will look to take full advantage of their second of two games there.

“The building’s big, it’s got a lot of history, it’s one of the iconic buildings in the country where it can go by just one name and people know the game’s at Rupp and pretty much everywhere in the country a basketball fan would know you’re talking about playing at Kentucky,” Mitchell said.

“It’s a great, great privilege and honor for us to get to play down there and we would really love to see a big crowd. It would be a great way to start the holidays and get a big crowd down there would help us out a lot.”