[caption id="attachment_287847" align="aligncenter" width="600"] (UK Athletics)
Even though the 2020-21 college basketball season is still an unknown, there is one thing we all know for sure: Rhyne Howard
is going to be the best player in women's college basketball - whenever that may be - and it isn't going to be close.
On Monday, Graham Hays of espnW put out a list "Ranking the 10 best women's college basketball players for 2020-21
" and who was sitting at the top of his list? The rising junior guard living right down here in Lexington.
Here's what Hays had to say about Howard as she looks ahead to her third college season.
Why she could win: She will be the nation's leading returning scorer after averaging 23.4 points per game this season. That's a good start. Howard does so much well. Kentucky's pressure allows her to influence games on the defensive end. She rebounds well from the perimeter and is remarkably sure-handed. But it's her ability to score that makes her a potentially generational talent. A 6-foot-2 guard who can get her own shot at any time and is highly proficient from the 3-point and free throw lines, she's almost impossible to defend on the college level.
What could get in her way: Whether it's the Wade, Wooden or even our own espnW award, players of the year historically come from teams near the top of the polls. Kentucky has its work cut out in replacing four seniors who played substantial minutes -- while also improving on a showing that likely wouldn't have earned it hosting privileges in this NCAA tournament. Is Howard so special that she can lift the Wildcats into the national championship discussion?
If you've paid even the tiniest bit of attention to Howard and Matthew Mitchell's squad the last two seasons, none of what Hays wrote will come as a surprise to you. We know that she's an elite scorer with an underrated defensive game. Her impressive size mixed with innate ball-handling abilities is an unfair combination. Over at KSR, we've been hyping up Howard since before her sophomore season even started
. But it seems like the national media is still trying to see if they should jump on the bandwagon.
Just a month ago, Howard was unjustly snubbed
from the coaches All-American Team despite being one of the two or three best players in the country last season. The only logical explanation as to why is that she simply outplayed her veteran counterparts. I can guarantee that Howard will be at the top of their list next season as a junior. Had she been eligible for the 2020 WNBA Draft that happened over the past weekend, she would have likely gone in the top 5.
*Quick side note: If I am understanding the WNBA's rules correctly, Howard will have to come back for her senior season. According to the league's website
, eligible draftees must
turn at least 22 years of age sometime during the year of the draft
. Howard is 19 right now and will turn 20 on April 29, which means she'll still be under the age of 22 by the time next year's WNBA Draft rolls around. She won't turn 22 until the end of her senior season.*
Let's go ahead and establish this right now: there isn't going to be a better women's basketball player in the college ranks next season. All of her potential competition made the leap to the pros. Sabrina Ionescu and Satou Sabally from Oregon along with Bella Alaire from Princeton are the three players from last season that I would argue were better overall (all three were selected in the top 5 of the Draft, two of them being seniors). Had Chennedy Carter of Texas A&M come back for her senior season (drafted 4th overall), it would have been a battle between her and Howard for the right to preseason Player of the Year - and even then it would hard to argue that the now-former Aggie would be the better player.
Aliyah Boston from South Carolina (a rising sophomore who swept the SEC Freshmen of the Year awards, just as Howard did in her first year) and Dana Evans from Louisville are some familiar faces that made Hays' list. And both will give Howard and Kentucky some "fits" whenever they play next.
Hays also points out in his blurb on Howard that she might take a hit from voters if Kentucky isn't an elite-level team. While that might be true (and a bit ridiculous in deciding individual honors), there shouldn't be any argument over whether Howard is the best overall player in the country.
But there is the aspect of the unknown for next season, which is the status of Kentucky's roster. A lot of how good UK will be next season depends on the passing of an immediate transfer rule, something that coach Mitchell did not sound too optimistic about being implemented this
Here is what Mitchell said last week, according to the Herald-Leader:
"The last guidance I trust was from the Southeastern Conference saying that, pre-Covid 19, the (NCAA) was going to discuss (the change) in June and it was probably going to go through in August.
“Now, with all of the disruption that has been caused by the pandemic, if I understand it correctly, they are tabling (the new transfer rule for 2020-21) and the soonest that would happen would be for (2021-22). So, this year, we are going to play under the current rules.”
Kentucky recently added two premier transfers
from rival SEC programs, Jazmine Massengill (Tennessee) and Robyn Benton (Auburn), who will both come in and make big-time impacts right out the gate. Massengill could even step in as a starter from day one. But if they have to sit out an entire season, the Wildcat roster will need some filling out.
Hays is correct in pointing out that Kentucky would not have earned a top-4 seed in the now-canceled NCAA Tournament and their ceiling for next season without the two transfers is probably right in that same area. Losing five seniors - four of which provided consistent production - is going to hurt. The additions of incoming freshmen Treasure Hunt and Nyah Leveretter will help, but a lot of the responsibility will fall on Howard to put up numbers (something she did practically her entire sophomore season).
With all of that said, Kentucky should still be talented enough to stick in the top-25 national rankings for most of next season if the immediate transfer rule is not incorporated. IF
they can play, however, Kentucky will have top-5 talent. Mitchell did point out in that same Herald-Leader
article that Massengill and Benton could apply for immediate eligibility waivers and play right away. We'll have to wait and see what happens on that front.
No matter what happens with the roster that surrounds her, Howard is going to be the best player on the court. Improving on her already mind-blowing stats will be difficult for no other reason than she'll draw even more attention on the floor than she already has been.
The title for the nation's best player next season is going to be Howard's to lose. At this moment, there isn't another women's college basketball player that is more talented than her. While someone could pop off in the middle of the season and make things interesting (Boston from USC would be my top choice), the talent that sat above Howard has moved on.
Rhyne Howard's elite talent is one of the few things that we know for sure in this sports-less world.