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No matter how many players he has back or how his team did the previous season, Matthew Mitchell worries about the same things going into any season.
“I have the same concerns because every season is different and the goal for me every season is to bring the players together and make a team,” said the Kentucky women’s coach. “My concern this year will be are we able to mesh together and really care about each other at the level of a real team. That is always a concern every year and it would be a mistake to ever take that for granted.
“Even if you have a veteran team like we do this year, you can’t take it for granted. I have made that mistake assuming you have a veteran team back so everything is automatic. I have found out you have to stick to the principles of your program every year. You start from scratch to build a team every season, so that’s why I have the same concern about getting that job done every year.”
Yet don’t misinterpret that and think Mitchell is not excited about what lies ahead for his team. His team went 30-6 last year and has won 25 or more games four straight seasons. In just six years, he has become UK’s all-time winningest coach with 144 victories.
“I am just looking forward to what we can become,” the coach said. “I am always optimistic that we can get it done, but you never know how it might unfold. I approach this year with a lot of excitement to see what will work and can I use all the experience I have gained over the years to build a great team. I put a lot of time into preparation for this season and now it’s time to start seeing what will work.”
He has a veteran team with experience at every position along with depth after he went to a two-platoon system last year to create even more defensive havoc with UK’s fast-paced style.
“We have a lot of players coming back that had successful years and did well. The way we approach things is that we need a lot of people to play well because of the way we like to play,” Mitchell said.
Big hopes for Stallworth, Walker
However, there are two players — 6-3 senior DeNesha Stallworth and 6-1 senior Samarie Walker — he would like to see make a big jump this year. Stallworth transferred to UK from California while Walker was a transfer from Connecticut.
“I would love to see DeNesha reach her potential,” Mitchell said. “I always think the first year off a transfer year is filled with challenges to get back in your rhythm. She had a great year being first-team all-conference, but I think she is an All-American type player. I would love for fans to see her put it all together,” Mitchell said. “I would love to see the same thing for Samarie. I would love for her to play her best during her senior year. Those two players are going to be really important to our success.
“Then when you talk about our guards, there are so many good players. Bria Goss needs to step into that go-to scorer role on the perimeter. Kastine Evans has really improved her game in the offseason and is poised to have a great senior year. Jennifer O’Neill had a really good sophomore year and is one of the more explosive and dynamic players on the team. They are all important.
“I feel kind of silly talking about almost every player on the roster being important, but we have a deep roster. It’s hard to single out players that we need to really step up their game, but I would like to see that out of Denisha and Samarie.”
His players do feel they are all “important” and junior guard Bria Goss insists the team does not have a “best” player because everyone has talent.
“I love that type of confidence,” Mitchell said. “Bria is a leader on and off the court. She has high character, does things the right way, cares about Kentucky. It means something to her to play for the blue and white. She has high personal standards that matches what I have. I hope she is right about the talent, too.”
Dunlap, Mathies changed UK program
As Mitchell looks back, he quickly acknowledges that two recruits — Nashville’s Victoria Dunlap and Louisville’s A’dia Mathies — changed the face of UK women’s basketball.
“They both had the talent to get you over the hump in game with singular plays that we needed. It’s really hard to build a program we have where everyone contributes, so I don’t think a lot about most important players,” Mitchell said. “But if you ask me, those two players, with a lot of help from kids who played hard and supported them, made plays that only players of their ability and talent can make. They are very important to this program, but who knows what the future holds. But what happened during their careers is that Kentucky went from being okay and borderline not that good to a top 10 program.”