Oklahoma the First of UK's December Tests
Matthew Mitchell played an instrumental role as Kentucky’s schedule was built. But now that December upon him, he sees it in a different light.
“As a coach, you sit and you look at the month,” Mitchell said. “It’s a very, very difficult month. The schedule is challenging in every way.”
It starts on Thursday night with a home matchup against No. 12 Oklahoma (5-0). Next is a trip to No. 7 Louisville on Sunday, followed by home games against Middle Tennessee State and Arizona State. UK then plays two more home games against Radford and Washington State before closing December with a game at perennial power Duke.
The series of tasks at hand might be significant, but the No. 17 Wildcats (5-1) can’t tackle them all at once.
“What you must do right now and what we must do right now is seek improvement every single day, go out and play our guts out every night and we know how to win basketball games and we know what it takes,” Mitchell said. “We just have to continue to seek improvement.”
So that’s what Kentucky has done.
“The kids have worked really hard the last two days,” Mitchell said. “I think we’re better than when we woke up on Tuesday morning. We’re better. We’ve had a couple individual workouts for everybody. Had a really good practice last night, gonna have a really good practice (Wednesday) and we’re going to work our head off tomorrow in game-day practice and then we’ll go play a really good Oklahoma team and see what happens.”
What’s guaranteed to happen is that UK’s offense – averaging 77.8 points per game on 46.5-percent shooting – will be faced with “by far” its toughest test to date against the visiting Sooners, according to Mitchell. In his mind, that begins and ends with turnovers.
“They just throw a lot at you, they play real hard, they play real aggressive and it’ll be real important for us—we have to win the turnover battle in my mind for us to be successful in this game,” Mitchell said. “It’s a really, really big stat in the game.”
Mitchell normally isn’t big into statistics, so it speaks to the importance of turnovers that he’s emphasizing them so. To this point, Oklahoma is forcing 17.8 turnovers per game and sports an average turnover margin of plus-3.4. UK is actually better in that category so far this season, with a margin of plus-3.8, but not for the reason you’d think based on the way UK has played historically.
“We aren’t forcing a ton of turnovers, but we are really doing a good job of taking care of it so far,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had deeper, more athletic, more talented teams who would turn it over 20 times. … So that’s one thing that’s encouraging. The players are being tough and taking care of it.”
UK is only committing an average of 10.0 turnovers per game, but an Oklahoma team that switches defenses regularly and often uses a 1-3-1 half-court trap that causes problems for opponents will test that. How the Cats cope remains to be seen, but regardless of the outcome this game won’t be anything other than another chance to get better in a month full of them.
“We’ll go and work like crazy to win the game, but this team is improving and they need some more time to improve,” Mitchell said. “I know that. I, as the leader, have to keep doing the right things every single day, giving them the opportunity to improve. What we need is there. We just need to get better and I believe that we will through the month of December. We’ll have so many opportunities to learn about our team, but we just gotta fight every day for improvement.”