UK Taking Little Steps toward Big Goals

Swirling around Kentucky is talk about what could happen in the future.

Thoughts of winning a national championship are never far from the Wildcats’ minds. And they cannot escape the fact that they could play in a regional hosted in Rupp Arena next weekend.

“That’s just there,” UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “In today’s day and age, you can’t run from that. It’s just there. It’s on their phone all the time. It’s in front of them all the time, so it’s not something that you can ignore and act like you can shield them from it.”

Though he’s wise enough to know such talk is unavoidable, Mitchell is refusing to let his team get caught up in it. Instead, Mitchell will continue to preach to his players that the only way for them to reach their intended destination is to take the next small step.

That starts with a Sunday practice in preparation for a second-round matchup between third-seeded Kentucky (24-7) and sixth-seeded Oklahoma (21-10) at 6:30 p.m. on Monday in Memorial Coliseum.

“For you to be successful and for us to reach our dreams and goals and accomplish what we want to accomplish, we have to stay firmly planted in the present and do what we can control, work on that,” Mitchell said. “So that’s today’s practice.”

Mitchell has a couple things working in his favor when it comes to getting the Cats’ attention.

For one, the second round of the NCAA Tournament has historically been a significant challenge for Kentucky. UK’s season ended there a year ago as well as in 2011, and two of the Cats’ last three second-round wins have come by five points or fewer. 

“We’ve never breezed through to the Sweet 16,” Mitchell said. “It’s always been a battle.”

That doesn’t figure to be any different against the Sooners. Oklahoma enters the game ranked (No. 23 according to coaches, No. 24 in the Associated Press poll) and coming off an impressive 61-45 win over Purdue that saw the Sooners reject 13 shots.

“We’re preparing for an absolute battle and fight to the finish in order to earn your way into the Sweet 16,” Mitchell said. “So it’s no trouble here trying to guard against a letdown because Oklahoma is a top-level, top-25 perennial tournament team that has great history and their coach is absolutely one of the best in the country. So I’m not really worried about guarding against a letdown right now. I’m trying to get them ready to beat a very good team.”

Mitchell was effusive in his praise of Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale, saying he has emulated her in much of what he has done in building his own program. He has split two head-to-head matchups with Coale, falling in the Elite Eight in 2010 and winning an early-season overtime battle last year, and would make the third time the last if he were left to his own devices.

“I’ve had the misfortune of playing against her twice now and I’m glad it’s only twice,” Mitchell said. “I hope I don’t have to play against her again for a long time. But she knows how to make adjustments in the game so the challenge is great just trying to match wits with her.”

Making it even more of a challenge is a talented frontcourt featuring 6-foot-3 leading scorer Kaylon Williams and 6-4 super sub Vionise Pierre-Louis.

“Well the two kids, 42 (Williams) and 0 (Pierre-Louis), have great size and great length and they’re very top-level players,” Mitchell said. “They will create a real challenge. What you have to do when you’re going against players of that caliber is you have to rely on your strengths.”

Therein lies the final element of Mitchell’s message to his team. As good as Oklahoma may be, getting caught up in the Sooners is the last thing UK can afford to do. To take the next step toward the big-picture goals the Cats are keeping in the back of their minds, they have to take care of themselves.

“We’ve just got to focus on Kentucky,” junior Makayla Epps said. “We’ve got to keep doing what Kentucky does best. Pushing the pace, personalizing communication on defense, just everything we work on every day in practice. We’ve got to transfer that to the court. When that happens for us, we’re a really good ball club and we’ve done some really good things.”