[caption id="attachment_279899" align="aligncenter" width="819"] (Eddie Justice | UK Athletics)
Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series intended to give the Big Blue Nation some deeper insight on the upcoming version of the Kentucky Women's Basketball Team. If you missed out on part one, "Getting to know the 2020-21 Kentucky Women’s Basketball Team: First-years and sophomores", you can quickly catch up by clicking the link here. Now, without further ado, let's dive into the juniors and seniors for the upcoming rendition of the UK Hoops squad.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell lost three key ball handlers and a productive reserve post player from a season ago, but he returns the overwhelming majority of the scoring and rebounding that had Kentucky Women's Basketball eager to make a run in the 2020 NCAA Tournament. While that event was ultimately canceled--as well know all too well--there is a fantastic opportunity for redemption in the coming year: Kentucky has a real chance to break through and finally make a Final Four this season.
With respect to the first-year and sophomore players, the 'Cats will be powered by the veterans: three juniors and three seniors will grace the court for Kentucky this season, a few of them with All-SEC aspirations and one a clear-cut favorite to repeat as the SEC Player of the Year.
KeKe McKinney, Tatayana Wyatt, and Chasity Patterson will embark on their final season in Lexington while Rhyne Howard, Blair Green, and Kameron Roach suit up for their junior year runs. Among those six, five of them (Roach did not play in 2019-20) will account for 72.6 percent of all returning scoring and 57.1 percent of all rebounding for upper-class players. Granted, a large chunk of those percentages come from Howard alone (44.4 percent of the returning scoring and 33.6 percent of the returning rebounding), but there is consistency all across the board on this roster.
With that being said, let's kick things off with the reigning SEC Player of the Year as she'll start the season a trendy pick to win the national award.
Rhyne Howard (Junior)
Rhyne Howard was sensational during her sophomore year campaign, finishing second in the country in scoring at 23.4 points per game while claiming every individual award this side of Oregon. At 6-foot-2, she's neither a guard nor a forward, but the perfect combination of both: a tall scorer with excellent ball-handling skills and a frame strong enough to battle amongst the tress down on the block. WNBA teams will clamor for her as a top-pick once she can finally make that leap following the conclusion of her senior season. But Howard is only halfway through her collegiate career with plenty left to prove.
A significant pinky injury in the latter stages of the 2019-20 season undoubtedly affected her playing abilities, even if it was never obvious from the outside. There were several games leading into the SEC Tournament where she was quite literally playing with one hand. Stack on top the pandemic, which ripped away her bid at a Final Four run, and there is plenty of reason to believe she'll come back looking even better than she did as a sophomore. Remember, Howard dropped 25 or more points in five consecutive games for the first time in program history, as a sophomore, but not against lower-tier teams; Howard was exploding for career nights against the likes of South Carolina and Tennessee.
She was named to the SEC's All-Defensive Team in 2019-20, as well.
If anyone can find something that Howard doesn't do at at least
an above-average level, I would love to explain why they're wrong. The scoring punch she provides is obvious: Howard can score from all three areas of the floor and has zero problem getting to her preferred spots on all of them. If opposing defenses bring help, she has insanely underrated passing abilities that opens up the entire floor for the rest of her teammates. Howard is an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor, a tenacious and disciplined defender both on the ball and in the post (who has also executed more than a couple of chasedown blocks as a Wildcat), and is an intelligent shot-taker all-around.
There isn't a more unguardable player heading into women's college basketball next season than Rhyne Howard.
KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt (Seniors)
Arguably the two biggest "X-Factors", senior forwards KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt will have even more responsibilities than they did as starters during their juniors seasons.
The recent eligibility clearance for 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Olivia Owens could complicate what a starting lineup for Coach Mitchell might look like, but it feels almost certain that McKinney is going to start again while Wyatt will, at the very least, play 20 minutes or more per outing. But let's take a closer look at the lip-gloss wearing, gospel-singing vocal commander, first.
McKinney was the team's second-best defender a season ago behind Howard, and one could make the point that she might be more valuable on that end than Howard. McKinney is only 6-foot-1 but makes up for the lack of an extra couple inches with quick feet and a high motor; she was the team's leader in blocks with 42 to go along with 23 steals as a junior. It's also why she finished second on the team in rebounding behind Howard despite playing the fifth-most minutes among her teammates. She is much more capable of battling on the block against taller and more imposing centers throughout the course of an entire game as opposed to Howard. McKinney is relied upon by the coaching staff to do some of the brunt work on the defensive end that Howard can't be expected to do at a high-level while contributing to the same degree on offense.
But it's not just on defense where McKinney makes her mark. She steadily improved as an outside shooter as a junior and finished as the team's best 3-point shooter, percentage-wise (41.8 percent). She chucked up 55 of them, too, sixth-most on a squad that fired up more outside looks than only one other SEC school during 2019-20 (Arkansas). McKinney is as multi-dimensional as it gets for a post player in this league; she fits perfectly in an up-tempo offense that can burn slower teams.
For my money, McKinney is Kentucky's second-best player and the energizer that powers this Wildcat team.
[caption id="attachment_320211" align="aligncenter" width="1080"] (UK Athletics)
As for Wyatt, what she brings isn't all that different from McKinney in terms of how they play.
McKinney has an advantage in quickness, but Wyatt, who is slightly taller at 6-foot-2, is tougher to break down in the post. Not quite the offensive force of her frontcourt counterpart, Wyatt's touch on that end came along throughout the course of last year. Towards the end of the season, specifically, Wyatt became a reliable source of offense in the paint. She slowly faded away from shooting beyond the arc (only 24 attempts compared to 46 as a freshman and 32 as a sophomore) and countered that with more trips to the free-throw line. Minor injures took away some of her playing time and clearly affected her on-court play during spurts of the season, which likely had a direct impact on her sub-40 percent shooting mark from the floor and 54-percent clip from the charity stripe. However, a 14-point, three-rebound outing against Tennessee during the SEC Tournament Semifinals reminded everyone that she has plenty of potential capable of being fulfilled.
I feel strongly that, had she been completely healthy all season long, Wyatt would have started all 30 games for the 'Cats. Instead, she sat out one game entirely and came off the bench in nine other appearances. She played at least 20 minutes in six of the team's first 14 outings, but only hit that mark twice in the 15 games that followed (against mostly SEC competition). Wyatt was oftentimes prone to careless fouls, as well, that led to quick trips to the bench. I'll say once again that the surprise addition of Owens will provide an extra post player who will surely soak up some of the minutes shared between McKinney and Wyatt.
But Wyatt will absolutely play a major role heading into the 2020-21 season, especially if she can return to 100 percent health.
[caption id="attachment_320215" align="aligncenter" width="1575"] (UK Athletics)
Chasity Patterson (Senior)
If Howard is the star and McKinney is the captain, then senior point guard Chasity Patterson is the third piece that complements them both to perfection.
Just how much Patterson improves as a senior compared to her junior year--when she was named SEC Sixth Woman of the Year--could be the ultimate factor in determining Kentucky's ceiling for this season. She was known for questionable decision-making at times, but there wasn't a single person in the gym who could argue she wasn't one of the three best scorers on the court at all times--and that includes Rhyne Howard among the group.
Patterson averaged the second-most points on last season's squad, putting up 11.5 points per outing while shooting over 44 percent from the floor and an impressive 84.1 percent clip from the free-throw line on a decent volume. Despite standing at just 5-foot-5 and typically running around as one of the smallest players out there, Patterson possesses ball-handling techniques and a shooting prowess that even professionals yearn for.
She has a lethal mid-range game that she can break out in almost any situation and is at her most-dangerous when pulling up in transition from the 10-15 feet range. Getting to the rim is like second nature for her, but more impressively, she converts more often than not (54.4 percent shooting from 2-point range a season ago). Sometimes her mind operates faster than her hands can react, but Patterson can easily pop off for 25 points at a moment's notice. Outside of Howard and probably (hopefully) incoming first-year talent Treasure Hunt, there isn't a player on this roster we can say that about.
However, there will be more pressure on Patterson than anyone not named Rhyne Howard on this upcoming roster. She has big shoes to fill--six of them, actually. Sabrina Haines, Jaida Roper, and Amanda Paschal were the backcourt trifecta from a season ago that never failed to let the team or coaches down. They all brought unique skills--Haines as a deadly shooter, Roper as the floor general, and Paschal as the lockdown one-on-one defender--and Patterson is going to have to find a way to take a tiny piece from each and replicate it on a larger scale. Those three now-graduated players all posted assist-turnover rates that ranked in the top-10 percentile among all Divison I players during the 2019-20 season, according to Her Hoop Stats (Haines - 1.64, Roper - 1.92, and Paschal - 1.95). Patterson's figure of 0.94 leaves something to be desired there in that area.
The point guard situation is slim for Mitchell and company, with Kameron Roach (who well talk about more in a moment) as the only other true
point guard. Howard and Hunt will absorb a good portion of the ball-handling responsibilities, but teammates will look to Patterson as the player who controls the offense and settles everyone down. On the opposite end of the court, she proved to be a gambler at times, but one that came away on top more often than not.
If she can continue to grow into the role of floor general while adding some more vocal leadership, this will be a special season for the one-time transfer from Texas.
[caption id="attachment_320212" align="aligncenter" width="2560"] (UK Athletics)
Blair Green (Junior)
Like Patterson, junior guard Blair Green has a lot riding on the upcoming season.
The Kentucky native hasn't found as much success during her first two years in Lexington as many had hoped, but there is plenty of time for her to find her groove within this team. Green was one of just four players who appeared in all 30 games from a season ago and the only one who returns from last year's team. While her shooting numbers took a significant hit from her first season to her sophomore year, it was everything else she did at an improved level that should provide plenty of optimism heading into her junior stretch.
She was much more involved during her 2019-20 campaign as opposed to the season prior, and the fear she once showed with the ball in her hands slowly vanished as the games went along. As the confidence grew, so did her impact on the game, even if it wasn't reflected directly in the box score.
Green more than doubled her assist total from her rookie season to sophomore year while cutting her turnovers almost in half. The scoring numbers were similar, but she was getting up looks at a much higher rate than she did as a guard/forward combination player. As a sophomore, she all but abandoned her role as a forward and slide to her more comfortable position as a taller shooting guard. Green is 5-foot-11 and has a high release point on her jumper that is nearly impossible to block. It's never been about her ability to shoot the ball, rather her still-improving defense that's hurt her more than anything. But there aren't many better shooters on the team than Green and she'll have to help make up for the outside shooting that was lost following the graduations of Haines, Roper, and Paschal.
If Kentucky wants to look at repeat winners for the Sixth Woman of the Year award, Green is likely the best bet. She'll likely be the first or second player off the pine and a 20-plus minute per game player as a junior. She won't have the responsibilities and expectations of a Howard or McKinney or even Hunt or Patterson, but Green is going to play a vital role in this team making a deep tournament run.
There will be multiple games this season where Green is the deciding factor in a Kentucky win.
[caption id="attachment_308261" align="aligncenter" width="1080"] (UK Athletics)
Kameron Roach (Redshirt Junior)
We'll end this series with a redshirt junior who you might not be all that familiar with. A 5-foot-6 point guard, Kameron Roach has been with the team since the 2017-18 season, but sat out of all last year while recovering from an Achilles tear that put an early end to her 2018-19 season. In total, she's played in just 28 total games across two seasons for the 'Cats, averaging roughly six minutes and 1.2 points per outing. Roach will likely compete with incoming freshman Erin Toller for backup point guard minutes.
[caption id="attachment_320213" align="aligncenter" width="1575"] (UK Athletics)
Collectively, Kentucky is going to have impact players at every position. Howard will gun for another SEC Player of the Year trophy, Patterson and McKinney will vie for All-SEC spots, Treasure Hunt will be a Freshman of the Year candidate, Green could very well fight for Sixth Woman of the Year, and Coach Mitchell can doll out a 10-player rotation if he so chooses. Many expect the 'Cats to open the preseason as a top-15 team, maybe even top-10, heading into what very well could be the school's best shot at making a Final Four since their string of Elite Eight appearances during the early 2010s.