No. 6 Wildcats open with Final Four expectations

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell doesn't mince words.

Since practice began last month he has been saying his No. 6 Wildcats can be a Final Four team. Winning the Southeastern Conference regular season title and reaching the Elite Eight for the second time in three years can do that to your self-esteem and confidence.

Their journey begins Saturday against Delaware State.

And the Wildcats can hardly wait to show they're not just talking.

They crushed Bellarmine 113-33 in an exhibition game on Monday night. Six Wildcats scored in double figures as Kentucky shot 54 percent from the field and forced 46 turnovers.

While the Division II school wasn't the best measuring stick, Kentucky's play in the tuneup offered a hint of what they believe is about to come.

Still, Mitchell knows the Wildcats will have to earn everything they get.

"That's easier for us to say than it is to happen," Mitchell said of reaching the Final Four. "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."

The Wildcats return four starters from a 28-7 team picked to win the SEC again. And they are loaded with talent.

Leading the way is senior guard A'dia Mathies, last season's SEC player of the year after averaging 15.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. A top-15 finalist last year for the John R. Wooden Award given to the nation's top player, she's on the preseason top 30 list announced on Friday.

Fellow guard Bria Goss returns after being named SEC freshman of the year last season. Forward Samarie Walker and center DeNesha Stallworth are considered premier frontcourt players.

Senior forward Brittany Henderson, junior guards Bernisha Pinkett and Maegan Conwright and sophomore forward/center Azia Bishop headline a group of returning regulars.

"Having that amount of depth is great," Mathies said. "You can't just shut down one player and the team goes down. Just having that many players that can score points and put the ball in the basket and work equally hard on defense, it makes a great balanced threat."

The Wildcats will get a stiff test Tuesday in their first-ever meeting with Baylor. The No. 1 ranked defending national champions return 6-foot-8 All-American Brittney Griner and four other starters from a 40-0 squad.

But first up is Delaware State. The Wildcats bring a 20-game home winning streak into Saturday's game and insist they aren't looking past the Hornets.

"We see it up in our hallway, we have a countdown (to the Baylor game) but it doesn't mean anything until we get past Saturday," Walker said.

After coming within a game of the Final Four last season, the national stage is nothing new for the Wildcats. They're confident that high-caliber experience will carry them a step further this season.

"I think we have even more pieces this year to help us make the trip to the Final Four," Mathies said. "We have even more talent this year. We have transfers and people that can actually play this year that could not last year so that will definitely help us."

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