LEXINGTON – University of Kentucky women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell doesn’t run from lofty expectations, but he doesn’t embrace them, either.
So when asked for a reaction to his 2012-13 Wildcats being picked by the media Tuesday to win their second straight – and second in school history – Southeastern Conference championship, Mitchell’s answer is twofold.
“There is what it means for our program and what it means for our current team,” said Mitchell, whose team returns nearly everyone from a bunch that finished 28-7 and reached the Elite Eight a year ago.
“For the program, it’s a wonderful thing, and it is some tangible proof that the team last year was good, and a lot of preseason awards are passed out on what last year’s team did. It also makes you appreciative of where we have come from.”
Mitchell noted that four years ago – his second season at UK – his Wildcats were picked to finish 11th in the SEC in the preseason and went on to finish second.
“So it at least gives you some idea that progress is being made for the program,” he said. “I’m confident that our fans are excited about that and take pride that we are now considered to be a good program.
“Then, when you turn it to the team, it literally means nothing. Because I think back to when we were picked 11th, we didn’t pay attention to that at all, and we saw what that team did.
“So if it didn’t mean anything to that team, it can’t start meaning something now. We do have a good team ... well, let me say this: We do have good players and we have the capability of becoming a good team, but there is nothing automatic about that.
“Really, the only thing automatic, when you think about it, is we all in this room are going to die at some point.”
That’s Matthew Mitchell, pretty much always forthcoming and always on point.
And while Mitchell is not a big numbers guy – more on that in a minute – there is ample evidence, backed by numbers, that this season’s Wildcats are not only Final Four capable, but anything less will be more than a little disappointing.
Kentucky returns four of five starters, including defending SEC Player of the Year A’dia Mathis (15 points per game last season), a senior guard, and sophomore swing player Bria Goss (11 ppg), who appears capable of being an SEC Player of the Year in the very near future.
Six other letter winners return, and nearly all of them contributed significant minutes a year ago because it takes pretty much Mitchell’s entire roster to handle his aggressive, frenetic style of play.
The Wildcats also have highly-touted point guard Jennifer O’Neill on board after sitting out last season with an injury.
And three recruits join the team – freshman point guard Janee Thompson from Chicago, sophomore forward Jelleah Sidney from Chipola Junior College, and junior center DeNesha Stallworth, a transfer from the University of California.
Stallworth, at 6-foot-3, and Sidney at 6-2, help answer one of the few shortcomings from a year ago – a lack of height inside. They join four other Wildcats who are over 6 feet tall, led by 6-1 junior forward Samarie Walker, who’s a preseason second-team All-SEC pick.
All can play, and while most of them will, Mitchell admitted it’s a valid concern when asked if he worries about team chemistry with only five players and one basketball on the court at a time.
“I’m a feel-based coach,” Mitchell said. “I’m not analytical. I’m not stats driven. I’m thinking about chemistry, and I’m a big believer that if we get the intangibles right with this team, that’s going to be the difference more so than a certain play or certain scheme.
“So when you’re that kind of coach, and the relationships with your players matter to you, then that does have an element of concern that you want everybody to feel positive about their contribution. Having said that, then as a coach you have a responsibility to do what’s in the best interest of your team.”
So it’s a juggling act.
“You have to balance all that out, and you make tough decisions, and the best way I’ve found to really help that situation function well is to make your practice competitive, and be very clear on what you are looking for,” Mitchell said. ‘’And then give everybody an opportunity.”
But Mitchell said it’s of some comfort that last year’s team faced a similar situation and handled the chemistry issues well.
“We have proven over the last few seasons that we can get a lot done with a lot of players, so it’s not a huge concern,” Mitchell said. “But I would be lying if I told you that’s not something I think about a lot, and I want to make sure the chemistry is good because if you’re not concerned about team chemistry, you aren’t concerned with winning a team championship, because that’s a huge part of it.”
Which brings us to the last question: Can this Kentucky team get over the hump and reach the Final Four in New Orleans?
“They’re a potential Final Four team, but that’s easier for us to say than it is to happen,” Mitchell said. “But if you look at our roster, and if everybody were to come together and play really hard and get some breaks, I think they are – they have that potential.
“I do think you need to set goals and have direction, so we would love to get to New Orleans. But it’s a long way between today and there. But we will try to remind them how special they can be.”
The long road starts Nov. 5 when Kentucky hosts Bellarmine. The Wildcats then host Delaware State on Nov. 10 before traveling to Waco, Texas to take on defending national champ Baylor on Nov. 13.