UK women's basketball 2012-13 team photo (Photo from UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell’s dance moves aren’t the only facet of the UK women’s basketball team facing high expectations this season.
On Tuesday, the Southeastern Conference media picked the Wildcats as the preseason favorite to win the conference championship. They also picked senior guard A’dia Mathies as the preseason Player of the Year.
UK is ranked No. 8 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll.
“Four years ago we were picked 11th (in the SEC), so it at least gives you some idea that progress is being made for the program,” Mitchell, who recently wowed UK fans with another dance routine at Big Blue Madness, said Tuesday at UK’s media day. “I’m confident that our fans are excited about that and take pride that we are now considered to be a good program.”
The preseason accolades may be a positive step for the program, but Mitchell knows it has little bearing on this season’s team.
“It really means absolutely nothing for this year’s team, because I think back when we were picked 11th we didn’t pay attention to that at all,” he said. “We saw what that team did. If it didn’t mean anything to that team, it can’t start meaning something now.”
The Wildcats return four of their top five scorers from the team that lost to Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament Elite Eight last season. Mitchell also adds three new McDonald’s All-Americans to the fold: junior center DeNesha Stallworth, sophomore guard Jennifer O’Neill and freshman point guard Janee Thompson.
Stallworth sat out the 2011-12 season as a transfer from California. O’Neill played as a freshman but missed last season with a stress fracture in her right foot.
The mix of returning playmakers and new talent has Mitchell with lofty expectations for his team.
“They’re a potential Final Four team,” he said. “That’s easier for us to say than it is to happen, but if you look at our roster and if everybody were to come together and play really hard and you get some breaks, I think they are. They have that potential.”
Wildcat players aren’t getting caught up in the preseason hype.
“We just need to go out here and play our game,” said sophomore guard Bria Goss, the 2012 SEC Freshman of the Year. “We can’t really worry what others are doing. It’s just about what we need to do as a team to perform and get better.”
“The expectations are very high, but we try not to focus on that and just try to get better every day in practice,” Stallworth said.
Just because they are downplaying outside expectations, doesn’t mean UK players don’t have big goals.
Those goals include living up to Mitchell’s “potential Final Four” description.
“I think that’s the big step this year,” Mathies said. “We’re definitely making strides to do that. We’re working hard in practice every single day, working on drills, working on defense, just trying to get prepared and make that final run this year.”
Mitchell hasn’t shied away from talking about the Final Four with his team. He wants them to know what they’re capable of accomplishing.
“We don’t huddle up every day and say we’re trying to get to the Final Four, but we have tried to make them aware that we believe that they’re championship caliber, that we believe they can be that kind of team,” he said. “I do think you need to set goals and have direction. We would love to get to New Orleans, and it’s a long way between today and there, but we will try to remind them how special they can be.”
Perhaps the best indication of the sustained success of Mitchell and his recent UK teams is that players aren’t surprised by lofty expectations and goals.
Aiming for a Final Four trip is now the status quo.
“We thought that last year too, so we always want to keep that mindset,” Goss said. “We are going to have the same mindset next year, but this year is going to be our year and a good one for us.”