LEXINGTON, Ky. – Just because Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell isn't talking about reaching his first Final Four or fourth regional final in six seasons doesn't mean he's not thinking about it.
Mitchell is taking more of a wait-and-see approach with his 11th-ranked Wildcats, who went 26-9 (10-6 Southeastern Conference) and reached their fourth straight NCAA Sweet 16 last season. Kentucky must replace the scoring and defense left by the departures of forwards DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker and guard Kastine Evans from the starting lineup.
It's certainly possible for the Wildcats with a returning veteran backcourt led by seniors Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill and a frontcourt featuring senior Azia Bishop and reserve Jelleah Sydney. A group of prized recruits also figures to bolster Kentucky in the post.
How the pieces will fit might explain Mitchell's cautious outlook, which could improve by March.
"Right now for this particular team, what's very, very important is that they just try to become their best every day," said Mitchell, who begins his 10th season as a head coach and eighth with Kentucky.
"I have an idea of what that could be. I think that could be really, really good and one of the top teams in the country, but I'm not talking to them a lot about results right now."
Of course, anything is possible if Kentucky resumes the relentless defensive philosophy that has built its success. The potential is there with Goss, O'Neill, junior Janee Thompson and sophomores Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper leading the Wildcats' backcourt.
All of them can score and Mitchell has indicated that he will use a four-guard lineup to make it happen on both ends of the floor. It just might take some time.
"My expectations for this team are for everybody to play to their full potential," said O'Neill, Kentucky's leading scorer at 12.6 points per game last season. "I don't want to start setting goals right now, but I want everybody to be able to leave this season and say 'I played my best.' "
Here are other things to look for as Kentucky opens Friday against Appalachian State:
NEW-LOOK EPPS: Losing 15 pounds during the offseason has made versatile sophomore guard Makayla Epps quicker and more determined to build on a debut in which she averaged 4.6 points and 1.4 rebounds. Her freshman year literally had its share of bumps and bruises, some from a serious car accident. "It put me in a funk for a little bit," Epps said of the rollover wreck, "but once SEC play and the postseason came and I was playing fine, I said 'you're over that now' and just go play ball."
NEWCOMERS: Size highlights Kentucky's freshmen class including two All-Americans. Leading them is 6-foot-3 center Alyssa Rice and 6-2 forward-center Alexis Jennings, who were McDonald's and WBCA All-American choices, respectively. The Wildcats added guard Jaycee Coe, a two-time Tennessee Class A Miss Basketball, and 6-6 junior transfer Ivana Jakubcova from Murray State College in Oklahoma.
NEW ASSISTANTS: Adeniyi Amadou, Christian Stefanopoulos and former UConn and WNBA standout Tamika Williams have joined Mitchell's staff. Stefanopoulos previously worked 2007-10 as video coordinator under Mitchell before working on staff at Bucknell and Morehead State.
WELCOME BACK, KYVIN: A pulmonary embolism detected before last season sidelined 6-1 forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers for her freshman year, but she has recovered from the health scare and is ready to contribute to the Wildcats' frontcourt. "I never really took in why it really happened," Goodin-Roger said. "I was just worried about getting better and getting to the court."
BAYLOR, AGAIN: Kentucky will face Baylor for the third straight season and the Wildcats hope the meeting sells out Rupp Arena again on Nov. 17. The program drew a record 23,706 last season against Duke and aims to pack the house against a Lady Bears team it split two games with last season. Kentucky won an epic four-overtime game 133-130 last December in Arlington, Texas; Baylor avenged that loss by beating the Wildcats 90-72 in the Sweet 16 of last year's NCAA tournament.