What A'dia Mathies does for an encore in her native Bluegrass State will have a great deal to do with what kind of second act Kentucky enjoys on the national stage.
The Wildcats were the season's surprise team last we gathered. Picked to finish next to last in the SEC, they instead finished second to Tennessee in both the regular season and conference tournament and came within 40 minutes of making it to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament. They made that run in no small part on the strength of a breakout season from Victoria Dunlap, who went from a very good player who averaged 12.8 points per game as a second-team all-conference pick as a sophomore to the SEC Player of the Year averaging 18.1 points per game as a junior.
Dunlap even offered a fitting final scene for her season, albeit a bittersweet one, with a memorable soliloquy in the regional final defeat against Oklahoma. While the rest of the Wildcats combined to hit 25 percent of their shots against the Sooners, Dunlap scored 31 points on 10-of-18 shooting and added 13 rebounds and a team-high three assists.
So no mistake about it, the best news of all for Kentucky is that Dunlap returns for a farewell season. Yet if not for a season-saving second half from Mathies in the first round, Dunlap might never have enjoyed the opportunity to put an exclamation point on her arrival as a star. And in one memorable performance, Mathies underscored that this season might feature dueling leads.
"She has unbelievable talent," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "When you're coaching her, and you see her do some things in practice, it's really amazing. And you're happy that she's on your team."
If Mathies is as good as she was as a freshman, Kentucky could again be very good itself. If she suffers through a sophomore slump, Kentucky might suffer right along with her. If she makes the leap to stardom? Well, that could make for a very special spring in Lexington.
"I think she has all sorts of opportunities to lose focus," Mitchell said. "If she loses focus and gets caught up in things that aren't real -- for instance, whatever the expectations outside the program are, if she thinks that because she had some success her freshman year, that's automatically going to happen her sophomore year, she has a lot of opportunity to go take a step back.
"And on the same hand, if she stays focused and if she stays in touch with what's real -- and that's trying to come out and give a great effort in practice and trying to learn and trying to understand that she's still a young player and has so many areas she can still develop and get better -- then she has a chance, in my mind, to be one of the best players in the country."
In the first NCAA tournament game of her career, under the added spotlight of playing in her hometown of Louisville, Mathies scored 32 points, including 18 second-half points as the Wildcats held off Liberty's upset bid. That after she helped the Wildcats reach the SEC championship game by scoring 25 points against Mississippi State in the semifinals.
On the season, she was the only player other than Dunlap to average in double figures in scoring (13.6 ppg) for Kentucky. And as Dunlap bore the brunt of SEC defenses, her scoring average dropping to 15.7 in conference play, Mathies maintained both her scoring and her field goal percentage.
It's not just scoring, even if she spent the summer working on her 3-point, midrange and free throw shooting to the tune of 20,000 made shots. Mathies was third on the team in rebounding from her guard spot, second in steals, blocks and assists. That last one is of particular note for a team that unexpectedly lost point guard Amber Smith to a knee injury over the summer. Smith's availability for some portion of this season remains up in the air, but the Wildcats will definitely spend a good chunk of the winter without her, leaving Mathies as a key playmaker, regardless of how many minutes she spends as the actual point guard.
"I can go out there and score, I can get a rebound, I can get a steal or get an assist," Mathies said. "Anything that can help us out, that's what I'm going to try and do. Hopefully I can get even more assists this year."
Mathies meant all of that as an expression of her willingness to try to fill whatever role the team requires of her this season, but the thing is, she's good enough to do it all.
"I think A'dia is a great example of where our program is," Mitchell said. "If we stop at any moment and think that we're going to receive anything because of past activity, we're going to be in for a really long year. If we keep our nose to grindstone and understand what principles we're trying to live by -- honesty, hard work, discipline -- then this team has the talent to have a great season. And A'dia certainly has the talent to be one of the top players in the country."
Whether making a mark as one of the nation's top players or merely making the most of potential previously flashed, Mathies has plenty of company when it comes to players worth keeping an eye on in the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC. Incomplete though the list may be, here are 10 such players ready for big seasons.
Ten more to watch
LaSondra Barrett, LSU: The ascension seemed to begin during SEC play last season, even as Allison Hightower closed out a very good career in strong form. Barrett averaged 15.1 points on 41.8 percent shooting in 16 SEC games, compared to 10.4 points per game on 37.4 percent shooting in nonconference games. Of particular interest for a 6-foot-2 forward who is going to get a lot of defensive attention, she shot 89 percent from the free throw line in SEC play, better even than her 84 percent overall mark that led all players from the conference. She's not exactly undiscovered after two years of all-SEC honors, but like Dunlap, a junior leap might be in order.
Alexa Deluzio, Florida State: Working her way back from a knee injury that cost her the 2008-09 season, Deluzio was a key during the Seminoles' run to a regional final. Her 3-point shooting will be key without Alysha Harvin and Angel Gray, but 11 blocks and 30 steals hint at a two-way impact.
"She has really leaned up even more -- she's very fit, she's quicker," Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. "Her role is going to expand, really more on the defensive end than on the offensive end.
"I thought on the offensive end, she was already a huge threat for us last year. I think defensively now is where I've seen the biggest improvement in her. … She's a great scorer, and she'll do that part, but I think the defensive end is where she can be really special."
Briana Gilbreath, USC: Gilbreath wasn't the Pac-10's leading scorer last season, but she might have ranked near the top of the charts if you added up the points a player scored on one end and took away on the other. She shared the conference award as defensive player of the year with Stanford's Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, ranking third in the conference in blocked shots and 10th in steals. Arizona's Ify Ibekwe and Washington State's Jazmine Perkins were the only other players to rank in the top 10 in both categories, but with due respect to two outstanding players, neither of them also ranked in the top 10 in assists, as Gilbreath did for the Women of Troy.
Tayler Hill, Ohio State: As good as Jantel Lavender and Samantha Prahalis are, there's a lot more to see at Ohio State, including a player who has the talent to expand the team's star duo into a trio. As a freshman last season, Hill was the only starter other than Prahalis who had more assists than turnovers, no small accomplishment for a freshman with just enough talent off the dribble to get herself into tight spots if she's not careful. How much talent off the dribble? Hill got to the free throw line 138 times despite taking just 227 shots. By way of comparison, Lavender, no shrinking violet, earned 205 free throws while attempting 591 field goals.
Shenise Johnson, Miami: One half of the ACC's most prolific tandem, Johnson's sophomore season left a lot of defenders slumped in dejection. Johnson actually ranked second on the Hurricanes in scoring behind Riquna Williams, but few players anywhere did more last season. In addition to the scoring, she averaged 7.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.1 steals per game. And she was at her best as the Hurricanes, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2004, gained postseason experience in the WNIT. Johnson averaged 21.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in six games en route to a second-place finish.
Sarah Miles, West Virginia: Three players topped 200 assists last season while also ranking in the top 50 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio. A lot of people would get Samantha Prahalis. A bunch might also get Courtney Vandersloot. The "phone a friend" option would be handy for Miles, who led the Big East in assists and won defensive player of the year honors. Her shot was a bit erratic last season as she adjusted to a new role, taking over at point guard for Ashley Powell. But she was an efficient scorer the season before, suggesting we might be on the verge of seeing the total package if she bounces back quickly from wrist surgery in early October.
Chelsea Poppens, Iowa State: Brittney Griner, Kayla Pedersen and Jantel Lavender. Players linked by bright futures as WNBA lottery picks. They're also players linked by trailing Poppens in rebounds per 40 minutes last season. That might be a bit of a convenient gimmick statistic, but it's not a mirage. As a freshman, the 6-2 Poppens led the Cyclones with 7.2 rebounds per game, lending a strong dose of physical athleticism to a team most often linked to the 3-point line when it comes to basketball word association. She's an unfinished offensive product, but as she showed in putting up 9 points and 8 rebounds (including three offensive rebounds) against Connecticut in the NCAA tournament, she's not going to back down from anyone.
Sam Quigley, DePaul: College basketball is going to be a little less fun when there aren't any Quigleys running around the Windy City. Allie's younger sister is now an elder stateswoman for the Blue Demons, a position she earned by dint of age but also by the service she provided last season. Quigley carried a heavy load for the team after Deirdre Naughton's season-ending injury, averaging an astounding 38.2 minutes per game for the season. It's conceivable that much time on the court actually depressed her efficiency, yet she still ranked near the top of the Big East in assists, steals and assist-to-turnover ratio. She can do a bit of everything, which should be ever clearer if she gets to do a little less of it this season.
Monique Reid, Louisville: You try replacing Angel McCoughtry. Handed that impossible assignment, a task complicated when Desereé Byrd (who has since left the program) went out with a season-ending injury, Reid responded admirably. She averaged 18.4 points and 9.2 rebounds to lead Louisville, and while she had to be a volume shooter to some degree for a depleted team, she was efficient from the field (45 percent) and free throw line (81 percent on 233 attempts). Among the 108 players nationally who shot at least 80 percent from the free throw line, only Oklahoma State's Andrea Riley and Oral Roberts' Kevi Luper attempted more free throws. Reid might get fewer shots as part of a replenished rotation this season, but the talent isn't going anywhere.
Diandra Tchatchouang, Maryland: She's worth committing the spelling of that last name to memory, which is no small compliment. Call it the Tshimanga Biakabutuka-Miikka Kiprusoff club. There's going to be a lot of competition for playing time at Maryland this season, but the 6-3 Tchatchouang has too much talent not to be near the top of the list. The 3-point accuracy has room for improvement, to be sure, but she hit 32 3-pointers last season. Five other players in the ACC blocked at least 40 shots. They combined to hit one 3-pointer (Jacinta Monroe, for the curious). Tchatchouang is not a finished product, and that might mean a supporting role, but she's intriguing.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.