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October 23, 2012

Women's basketball team picked to win SEC title

Matthew Mitchell's been the underdog, and if you want to make him the favorite, the Kentucky women's basketball coach will take the label.

But it doesn't mean much to Mitchell that his Wildcats on Tuesday were named the media's pick to win this season's Southeastern Conference championship.

Mitchell remembers what it was like to be picked 11th in the preseason SEC poll. It happened three years ago. This is better.

"For the program it's a wonderful thing, and it just is some tangible proof that the team last year was good, and they did well, and a lot of preseason awards were passed out on what last year's team did," Mitchell said at Tuesday's UK media day. "So we should congratulate last year's team for helping us be the preseason pick."

But for Mitchell's new team, which returns four starters and 10 total letterwinners from a squad that went 28-7 and reached the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, the preseason recognition "literally means nothing," Mitchell said.

"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," Mitchell said. "Really, the only thing automatic, when you think about it, is we all in this room are going to die at some point, but other than that… ."

On a less morbid note, Mitchell said he has a "a potential Final Four team, and that's a possibility at least some of his players have discussed.

"We definitely think about it more this year," said senior guard A'dia Mathies, who on Tuesday was named the SEC preseason Player of the Year. "I've been to the Elite Eight twice since I've been here. Just to get the extra step to be in the final (weekend), all the attention's on just you four teams…, I think it'll be a very great thing if we can get that done."

The personnel is in place. Besides Mathies - the reigning SEC Player of the Year, who averaged 15 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season - Kentucky returns starters Bria Goss (11 points per game), Kastine Evans (seven) and Samantha Drake (4.7). Top reserve Samarie Walker (8.7 points, 7.2 rebounds) also returns, as does point guard Jennifer O'Neill, who sat out last season with a foot injury.

And the Cats add forward DeNesha Stallworth, who averaged 13.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in two seasons at California before transferring to UK, and freshman Janee Thompson, ranked by ESPN's HoopGurlz as the No. 6 point guard in the high school class of 2012.

"We're so talented," O'Neill said. "We're fast. I think we're going to be faster this year than we ever have been. We have extremely talented post players. Everybody came into preseason in shape, and I think everybody's really ready to go."

And though the Wildcats, who won last season's SEC championship, are playing with expectations, Mitchell's players echo his sentiment that the preseason pick doesn't amount to much.

"It says the program has come a long way," O'Neill said. "But this is a new team, new year. So we still have a lot to prove."

Coaching Compadres
Mitchell on Tuesday referred to Kentucky as "the most exciting place in the country to play college basketball," and it's a safe bet he doesn't mean strictly for women.

Mitchell's office is just across the hall from men's coach John Calipari's, and the two have developed a coaching bond that Mitchell said has proven meaningful in building the UK women's program.

The women play a prominent part at Big Blue Madness. Calipari asked ESPN to include them three years ago when College GameDay visited Rupp Arena.

In turn, Mitchell said - with tongue planted in cheek - that he's attempted to give Calipari's program a boost.

"I think my relationship with Cal has helped him tremendously," Mitchell said. "He won the national championship last year and I've been working with him extensively on, really, every phase of the game and mainly on his public relations skills.

"The guy has had trouble in that area, so I feel good that I've been able to bring him along to where there is interest in that program now and maybe I can devote more time to our team and see if we can get to a Final Four."

Weight it Out
The Wildcats have cause for optimism this season, but perhaps no player has more reason to be excited than O'Neill, who's returning to the court after missing last season with a foot injury.

"I'm really looking forward to the season, especially playing with this group of girls," said O'Neill, who averaged 5.1 points in 30 games as a freshman in 2010-11. "I missed them a lot last year."

Healing wasn't O'Neill's only offseason change. She shed 15 pounds, she said, and is feeling the impact of the loss.

"I feel a lot faster," she said. "I can actually feel it when I cut when we run. When I'm going through plays, I can actually feel like I'm not as heavy as I was. Even on defense, I don't get as tired as I used to as quick."


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