Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie wanted a carrot of sorts to keep his Wildcats extra motivated during summer workouts. And he said that's exactly what the opportunity to play UConn has been: a motivator.
"With this particular team, I wanted to challenge them in the offseason," said Mittie, whose Wildcats face the No. 1 Huskies on Monday (ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET) at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut.
"I was looking for that game early in the season that said to our team, 'We've got to have a great summer, and then continue to raise our standard every week.'"
Mittie is in his second season at Kansas State. He previously coached for 15 seasons at TCU, which didn't join the Big 12 until his last two years there. So for most of his time in Fort Worth, while in Conference USA and then the Mountain West, he would look for nonconference opportunities to get more national exposure.
"It challenges you to play your best in every situation. ... How many possessions can we say, 'We were able to run our stuff against the best'? If we can shrink it down to getting some victories at that level, we can see some progress." Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie on playing UConn
That exposure tends to come automatically in a bigger league, and Mittie knows there are many challenges ahead with the "18-game gauntlet" of Big 12 play. But there's no giant in women's college hoops bigger than UConn. K-State has faced the Huskies just once: a 72-26 demolition by UConn in the 2012 NCAA tournament. Mittie faced UConn once while he was at TCU: an 81-66 Huskies victory in the 2003 NCAA tournament.
Mittie said the talks with the Huskies were originally about being part of a possible four-team tournament in Connecticut. But when that didn't come through, K-State still wanted to play UConn.
"We know the reality of going there," Mittie said. "It challenges you to play your best in every situation. And how many of those battles can you win on the court each play? How many possessions can we say, 'We were able to run our stuff against the best'? If we can shrink it down to getting some victories at that level, we can see some progress."
In general, Mittie has been encouraged by what the Wildcats have done since he took over the program in the spring of 2014. Deb Patterson had been at the helm since the 1996-97 season, the first year of the Big 12. She was fired after K-State's 2014 Big 12 tournament loss. Shortly after that, in early April, star freshman guard Leticia Romero requested a transfer.
Those events spiraled up into a saga that lasted for the next month-plus as Romero battled the K-State athletic department for a release, which brought negative publicity to the school. Mittie was essentially caught in the middle: He realized it was best for his program to move on, but he also needed to support the administration that had just hired him.
Ultimately, Romero got her release, transferred to Florida State, and got eligibility for the second semester. Meanwhile, the Wildcats went 19-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big 12 in 2014-15. They played in the postseason Women's National Invitation Tournament, beating Akron before falling to former league foe Missouri in the second round.
"Last year, it was important to stabilize things for a lot of reasons," Mittie said. "We had the Romero situation, and then we felt like we needed to show people that our group really worked their tails off. I was pleased with our group, and I think they exceeded a lot of expectations last year. Now in year two, it's about taking a step further."
K-State is 3-0, with victories over Tulsa, Abilene Christian and South Dakota. Junior Breanna Lewis (18.0 PPG) leads the Wildcats in scoring. The 6-foot-5 center will get to test herself against the game's pre-eminent Breanna, 6-foot-4 UConn star Breanna Stewart, and fellow post player Morgan Tuck.
"She has to continue to improve at handling the physical play. But if you look at our summer and early fall, there wasn't a more improved player on our roster." Jeff Mittie on junior center Breanna Lewis
"Her footwork is better, and so is her skill level," Mittie said of Lewis. "She has to continue to improve at handling the physical play. But if you look at our summer and early fall, there wasn't a more improved player on our roster than Breanna Lewis."
Ultimately, Mittie thinks the Wildcats have already benefited just by getting to prepare for UConn. And even a big loss -- which is what the Huskies tend to serve to most teams, frankly -- can provide a measuring stick.
Plus, there's the return game next season, which will be either at the Wildcats' Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas, or at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City.
"I don't know which is more likely, because we've been juggling the dates and are still in the process of trying to work that out," Mittie said. "But either way, it brings a marquee game to either Manhattan or our region."