South Carolina a Measuring Stick for Developing Cats

There’s no mystery about Kentucky’s ultimate goal: advancing deep in the NCAA Tournament.

That makes the Wildcats’ game against South Carolina only another step along their season-long journey, one that won’t ultimately define success or failure.

It will, however, provide somewhat of a progress report when it comes to the development of Matthew Mitchell’s team.

“If we want to be one of the best teams in the country, this is a game that we need to be in,” Mitchell said. “And if we want to be one of the best teams in the country by the end of the year, we need to figure out how to function in a game like this.”

No. 9 UK (13-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) has faced a difficult schedule through nonconference and the first three games of SEC play. The second-ranked Gamecocks (15-0, 3-0 SEC) will present a different kind of test entirely when they visit Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

“They are one of the top teams in the country for a reason,” Mitchell said. “They have a great coach and they have great players.”

Two-time defending SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell leads the way for the Gamecocks, averaging 14.9 points per game. A’ja Wilson (15.6 points and 9.2 rebounds) and Alaina Coates (12.9 points and 9.3 rebounds) are both nearly averaging a double-double for South Carolina, which boasts four top-25 wins and a 23.6-point average margin of victory.

“Coates and A’ja Wilson really present tremendous physical challenges for you because they’re so big, but their other post players are very aggressive and big and physical,” Mitchell said. “Their guards are athletic and aggressive and veteran.”

Head coach Dawn Staley has steadily built the South Carolina into a national power. The trajectory of her program has been similar to Mitchell’s, with plenty of physical, oftentimes ugly games between the two along the way. Eight of the last 10 UK-South Carolina matchups – a game played twice annually in the regular season – have been decided by 10 points or less.

“I mean, they are really, really tough games,” Mitchell said. “And we’ve beaten them by a big margin before and they’ve beat us by a large margin before, but those kind of stand out. Usually it’s just a really tough game and it comes down to who plays harder and who fights harder and who’s able to get the rebounds and who’s able to make shots.”

More than in any of Mitchell’s first eight seasons in Lexington, the Cats have excelled at exactly that. UK is shooting 47.2 percent as a team and scoring 78.1 points per game, marks that rank 12th and 21st nationally.

That may position UK to score an upset of South Carolina like it did last March in Memorial, but the Cats lack the veteran presence that allowed them to withstand the inevitable ups and downs that come in a game like this one. UK’s young group – which features only one senior and four first-year players among its rotation – is still trying to learn that.

“We’re just not a real experienced SEC team,” Mitchell said. “And we’re having to find out that for us to be successful, attitude is at a premium. Resilience is at a premium. And trying to win games, as we figure it out, the toughness, the physicality.”

The good news is the Cats still have a couple months to get there. Thursday will play an important role in revealing exactly how far they have to go.

“Our team will have to prepare well and really play with a lot of ferocity tomorrow night,” Mitchell said. “A lot of heart. We’ll have to execute well and we’ll just have to give a great, great effort. And that’s what our M.O. needs to be, and that’s how we’ll be successful against this team in tomorrow night’s game and any game that we play. So it’s a really great opportunity for us to go out and compete against a really fine South Carolina team.”