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UK women face raised expectations

Matthew Mitchell arrived at Kentucky women's basketball Media Day and wasted no time letting everyone know exactly how he feels about what's coming on at the Joe Craft Center these days.

“I think right now Kentucky is the most exciting place in the country to play college basketball,” Mitchell said.

The brash nature of the comment was offset by how much truth Mitchell's opinion contained. Practices opened for both the men's and women's basketball teams two weeks ago on what could be a historic season in the Commonwealth. While John Calipari's squad is looking to return to the Final Four for a third consecutive season and claim back-to-back national championships, Mitchell's group is aiming to exceed the two Elite Eight finishes it has in the past three seasons.

Life is good if you're a Kentucky basketball coach or player.

“(We're) a potential Final Four team,” Mitchell said of his squad. “That's easier for us to say than it is to happen but if you look at our roster if everybody were to come together and play really hard and you get some breaks, I think they have that potential.

“We have tried to make them aware that we believe they're championship caliber, that we believe they can be that type of team.”

Mitchell has certainly given fans of Kentucky's women's team reason to believe. The Wildcats won their first ever regular season Southeastern Conference championship last season, going 13-3 to finish on top of the standing. The program's three-year SEC mark of 35-13 with a winning percentage of .729 dwarfs the previous 27 years in the league where UK managed just a .351 winning percentage.

Furthermore, the Cats' 81 victories over the past three seasons are the most in any three-year stretch in the program's history, besting the 73 wins from 1979-80 through 1981-82. Kentucky also owns a 20-game home winning streak and averaged more than 6,200 fans last season.

All of that means Kentucky is no longer the hunter, but rather the hunted. The Cats were picked to win the SEC in the preseason media poll, while senior guard A'dia Mathies was voted as preseason Player of the Year.

“For the program it's a wonderful thing,” Mitchell said. “It also makes you appreciative of where we have come from. Four years ago we were picked 11th (in the SEC) so it at least gives you some idea that progress is being made.

“It really means absolutely nothing for this year's team. When 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 have the capability of becoming a good team but there is nothing automatic about that.”

The Cats' roster features five McDonald's All-Americans, one more than Calipari's squad. The depth of talent means Mitchell must maintain a close eye on the pulse of the team throughout the season.

“I want to make sure the chemistry is good,” Mitchell said. “If you're not connected about team chemistry you aren't concerned with winning at team championship because that's a huge part of it.”

If those pieces fall into place Mitchell's team will indeed have a large hand in proving his opinion of college basketball at the school to be right on point.

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