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November 13, 2012

Kentucky women set to face No. 1 Baylor on the road

Baylor star Brittney Griner happened to be on ESPN's campus at the same time as John Calipari.

They ran into each other in the hallway and, as women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell recounted, struck up a conversation.

"Cal said. 'We have you in the second game of the season,'" Mitchell said. "(Griner) didn't know who Coach Cal was, then said, 'Oh, that's right. That's a nice dance you have.'"

It was a case of mistaken identity - Griner was referring to Mitchell's annual dance routines at Big Blue Madness - but the two will actually meet on the floor on Tuesday when No. 6 UK travels to No. 1 Baylor (6 p.m., ESPN2).

"We want to be the best program in the country, the best women's basketball team in the country," Mitchell said. "I feel like you have to play games like this to get there."

It's a huge step up from a season-opening 40-point win over Delaware State at home.
Baylor went 40-0 last season and won the national championship, led by the 6-foot-8 Griner, the consensus Player of the Year who averaged 23.2 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.15 blocks per game.

"Griner presents unique challenges just with her size, but she is a great player," Mitchell said. "She's not just a big, imposing figure in there. She can really play. Her game has developed."

To counter the senior center, Mitchell will focus less on her and more on her teammates. Mitchell wants his team to pressure the basketball before it gets to Griner. Eliminate her opportunities, and she can't control the game as much.

"Really, for us, this will be the ultimate test," Mitchell said. "We always try to take away people's post play by pressuring the basketball. We talk about playing post defense far away from the basket. If they can't see her, she's not open."

The other problem: pressuring the ball will be just as tough. Baylor point guard Odyssey Sims was a second-team All-American as a sophomore last season, directing an offense that committed 13.7 turnovers per game.

Stopping Sims is "as important as (stopping) Griner," Mitchell said. Kentucky will try to use its high-intensity, full-court defense (it forced 26.8 turnovers per game last year) to make Baylor make mistakes.

He said a checkpoint the Wildcats aim for every game is to force 10 more turnovers than they commit.

"If you don't stop either one of them, you have no shot," Mitchell said. "And you're not really going to stop either one of them, but you have to make them work as hard as they can for baskets."

While so much attention will be focused on those two players, Mitchell wants as much focus on his own team.

For one, in the second game of the season, Mitchell doesn't want to alter his defense or style for short-term benefits at the expense of long-term goals.

"We can't spend a whole lot of time just trying to take one player away at this stage of the season," Mitchell said. "Because I think that will really impede our progress on trying to build our team for the long haul."

Secondly, for a team that Mitchell touts as having Final Four potential, facing the top team in the country on the road will provide a great litmus test.

He said he would evaluate UK's mental toughness to assess where his team is at this early juncture.

Mitchell said he hasn't "been consumed with Baylor" for months, and he's also not looking too far ahead.

"I don't know how much I allow myself to think about anything," he said when asked if he had considered what a win would mean. "It's hard for me to allow myself to think. Thinking is not one of my strong suits. But as I sit here now I think I will allow myself to think about that. It would be a tremendous thing to win the game."

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