By John Zenor/The Associated Press
HOOVER, Ala. — Holly Warlick had barely settled into her seat when the Tennessee coach was asked if she had the worst job in the country as successor to the iconic Pat Summitt.
“Why would I have the worst job in the country?” Warlick responded on Thursday at Southeastern Conference media day.
“I love the opportunity to follow Pat Summitt,” she said, adding it’s “the perfect situation for me.”
Warlick inherits the powerhouse program at a time when Kentucky appears to have climbed to the top in a shifting of the power structure.
The Wildcats are picked to repeat as SEC champions behind reigning player of the year A’dia Mathies and last year’s top freshman Bria Goss.
Then comes Georgia and Vanderbilt in the media’s predictions, followed by Tennessee in a rare underdog role after losing all five starters from a team that went to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.
Count Warlick among those who consider the Wildcats the right preseason pick.
“They lost one starter,” she said. “They won the regular season SEC. It would be kind of a no-brainer. It’s theirs to lose.”
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell returns the core of a team that went 28-7 in his fifth season and also won three NCAA tournament games. The Wildcats do play defending national champion Baylor in Game 2, providing a pretty good indicator of where they stand.
Mitchell addresses the front-runner status by talking about the characteristics that are posted on the locker room wall: principle, sacrifice, preparation and character.
“Those things matter, and whether you’re the hunter or if you’re hunting or if you have a bull’s eye on your back, those things just don’t make a difference,” he said.
Mitchell has a ready example to get his players to discount preseason projections. The 2009-10 Wildcats team was picked to finish next-to-last in the then-12-team SEC. Kentucky instead won 28 games and played in the NCAA tournament.
“We try to approach that in practice,” Mitchell said. “We try to keep our practice sessions as absolutely competitive as they can be. We try to honor great effort every day and the players that give great effort do well in the program and the players that don’t, don’t succeed. It’s really an atmosphere of showing them what we feel like’s important for this team to do to be good.
“We don’t spend a large amount of time talking about the external expectations. When we were picked 11th, we said that the preseason polls didn’t matter so they can’t matter now when we’re picked first.”
League newcomer Texas A&M is picked fifth behind Big 12 newcomer of the year Kelsey Bone after winning two NCAA tournament games. Coach Gary Blair, who spent a decade at Arkansas, lost three starters.
Ole Miss, meanwhile, promoted assistant Brett Frank to acting head coach for the season on Wednesday.
Coach Adrian Wiggins and two other assistants were dismissed, and the athletic department revealed on Saturday it was working with the NCAA regarding “impermissible recruiting contacts and academic misconduct.”
Frank said the Rebels have run the emotional gamut recently.
“I think they’ve experienced every emotion imaginable: from hurt to shock and everything in between,” Frank said. “I think they understand that they still have a job to do. They still have a responsibility.
“They’ve all decided to unite and put this behind them as best they can and really focus on the things we’ve established as our goals from Day One.”