- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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LEXINGTON, Ky. -- There's a glass-enclosed trophy case next to the Kentucky women's basketball office. In the middle, a big blue pedestal with the UK logo on it and a small sign on top mark the unused space that reads "Reserved for the National Championship."
Downstairs, next to the team locker room, a large banner by the door displays the logo for the 2013 Women's Final Four in New Orleans. Get the hint? It's not that subtle.
"We want to make this season better than any season we've had before," Kentucky senior guard A'dia Mathies said. "We want to win another SEC championship, make it to the Final Four, hopefully win a national championship. I think we've got all the pieces to the puzzle."
Plenty of teams will think the same thing about their seasons. Not many are equipped to pull it off. With four returning starters, talent, depth and speed, a defensive identity that few teams in the country can match and even fewer can handle, the Wildcats have arrived at the place where they are one of them.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell wants to get his program to women's basketball's promised land, no doubt about it. But he can't spend a Thursday in November pining for a Tuesday in April. There's too much to do in between.
On this particular Thursday, Mitchell starts his day on the radio, hosting a statewide Kentucky sports talk show, filling in as a substitute host, taking calls, talking to listeners.
No sooner is he finished with that and he hops on a national conference call to preview his team's State Farm Tipoff Classic matchup against Baylor in Waco on Tuesday. He told the media on the call that his team's participation is a "visible, tangible sign of the progress we've made."
The Wildcats are in this showcase game for the first time because of how far they've come and where they are headed.
After going 28-7 last season, winning the program's first SEC regular-season title and reaching the Elite Eight for the second time in three years, Kentucky is considered among the elite. The No. 6 preseason ranking next to their name says so, other people say so.
Most importantly, Mitchell and his players prepare as if it is so.
Thursday's practice was a tough day, the five male practice players getting their hands on balls for turnovers, hitting shots. Mitchell showed his frustration a time or two, the players ran more than a few extra laps. Building a championship team doesn't mean you take a step forward every day.
"We are still trying to become what we think we can become," Mitchell said. "We are going to dare to be our best. And that sounds like a simple concept, but if we keep the focus there, it's very effective."
Kentucky has four returning starters -- including reigning SEC player of the year Mathies and SEC freshman of the year in Bria Goss -- and have seven of their top eight scorers back.
Mitchell will also start junior forward Samarie Walker, the UConn transfer who was the Wildcats' second-leading scorer and rebounder last season, and adds post DeNesha Stallworth, a Cal transfer, to the mix, creating depth inside.
The Wildcats will continue to be a defense-first, fast-paced, high-pressure, all-out team. But there's an acknowledgement that in order to play all the way to the end of the season, against the country's most potent offensive teams, Kentucky is going to need to score consistently.
"If you look at the final eight teams last year, we were by far the lowest shooting percentage team and we knew very clearly that we need to address that," Mitchell said. "We need to shoot better, score more. There are some things I think we are better at that are going to lead to more points."
The Wildcats are now the team with the target, picked to win the SEC, leading a new era in the nation's most storied league now that Pat Summitt has retired from Tennessee.
Mitchell knows that building a national profile based on success has helped his program already in many ways -- from recruiting to scheduling to connecting with a basketball-craving fan base in Lexington that is now showering attention on the women's players the way they've done to the men all these years.
But Mitchell has a bottom line.
"What is of real value to us is honestly evaluating what every player can become as an individual," Mitchell said. "After you do that, you figure out how good you can be. That's a very different process than people telling you how good you are supposed to be."
Mathies is the star, the All-American candidate, who has started 103 games over three years and scored in double figures 77 times. She averaged 15.0 points a game last season.
Mitchell said Mathies has a chance to "put an incredible stamp on her time here with a special senior season.
"She's really putting everything she has into this," Mitchell said. "I want this to be a really rich experience for her. I want her to put everything into this team to help us achieve a lot."
Goss, the versatile scoring guard, was the team's second-leading scorer at 11.0 points a game and started 35 games. Goss can follow Mathies' example as she takes over the leadership mantle next year.
"Everything she can soak up is tremendously valuable," Mitchell said.
Mitchell is looking for a point guard and has options in Jennifer O'Neill, Maegan Conright and true freshman Janee Thompson. Walker started nine games and led the team in rebounding at 7.2 per game.
Stallworth, who averaged 13.1 points and 6.4 rebounds in two seasons at Cal, is anxious to get on the floor for the first time since the end of 2011.
"Last year was a great year for me to grow and get better at my defense," she said. "I am looking to score and be aggressive. Coach is all about that. It's OK if you make a mistake as long as you are giving full effort, and that will take care of itself."
She said Kentucky's new status is part of the reason she came to Lexington.
"Kentucky is now a national program and I was kind of looking for that, making my decision [to transfer]," Stallworth said. "I felt like I could fit in here."
Goss said it will take "heart and toughness" for the Wildcats to break through and reach the Final Four.
"It's more than a physical game. It's a big mental game and that's where we can get stronger," she said. "Not every team can do it and we want to be one of the teams that can."
Reaching the Elite Eight in two of the past three seasons, Kentucky has established itself among the other echelon of women's basketball. This season, the Wildcats aim to go even further.