Five games, five wins, and plenty of potential left to unlock.
The No. 9 Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team has burst out to a perfect 5-0 record through the early stages of an unprecedented 2020-21 college basketball season. They’ve done so despite the shocking decision of Matthew Mitchell’s retirement, Rhyne Howard sitting out two games, and lofty expectations that haven’t been placed upon the shoulders of this program in years.
Through five games, all the makings of a special team and a special season have formulated. The overall talent level is littered with former five-star recruits, experienced veterans who have played at UK for years, and a highly-regarded first-year class. Interim head coach Kyra Elzy rolls out lineups that feature plenty of size in the post–something the team had been famously lacking for years now–with insane versatility across all five positions.
Granted, conference play doesn’t begin until the end of the month, which is when we’ll truly figure out just how far this Wildcat team can go. Along with UK, four fellow SEC programs currently rank among the top 15 teams in the country.
Early-season wins over Murray State, Belmont, and Marshall can cloud our expectations, but when they’re coupled by statement wins on the road against a Big 12 opponent (Kansas State) and a home win over the Big Ten preseason favorites (Indiana), the clouds don’t appear as thick as they ultimately have been in years past.
The 2018-19 Wildcats burst out to a 9-0 start before losing its first true challenge of the season against a ranked Louisville team. A year later in 2019-20, Kentucky began the season 10-0 before once again falling to the Cardinals in its first real test on the schedule. But this season, an undefeated record of 5-0 feels far more legitimate. Whether it be the caliber of opponents they’ve faced or the improved overall talent on the roster, the vibes are different.
But why exactly do they feel different? This is only my third season closely covering this team, so I can’t necessarily speak onto the last decade-plus of history during Coach Mitchell’s tenure in Lexington. But what I can confidently say is this collection of players has more pure talent than the last two seasons–and it’s not particularly close.
There are six former five-star recruits on the active roster– Howard, Chasity Patterson, Dre’Una Edwards, Robyn Benton, Olivia Owens, and Treasure Hunt–and it might be a just few more days before another one, Jazmine Massengill, is added into the mix, as well. Blair Green, KeKe McKinney, Nyah Leveretter, and Erin Toller came to UK as four-star high school prospects and have mostly played up those standards. Tatyana Wyatt, the lone former three-star prospect among the names listed, has developed herself into a consistent contributor over four seasons and now has the value of what programs expect when they recruit four- and five-star high school hoopers.
Kentucky didn’t recruit all of these individuals straight out of high school, though, as Howard and Hunt are the only former five-star prospects to join the ‘Cats as rookies. A few of them were transfers who came a year ago and a few more gained immediate eligibility over the offseason. Kentucky has hovered around a national ranking number somewhere in the mid-teens the last few seasons, and simply hasn’t had the overwhelming talent to leap into the top 10, much like they did during Mitchell’s run of three Elite 8 appearances over the span of four years from 2009-13.
Transfers or not, the Wildcats have top 10 national talent across the board.
One superstar and two budding stars
The endless talent of her teammates is why Howard’s shooting numbers have seen a slight dip through three games. The junior guard and National Player of the Year candidate sat out the first two games due to a suspension that Coach Elzy said Howard has apologized to her team for, and that everyone has since moved on. But she hasn’t put up NPOY-like numbers thus far. Howard is shooting just 38.5 percent from the floor and is 6-20 from beyond the arc. She’s coupled that with more turnovers (10) than assists (8), as well, but she somehow still looks and plays like an improved version of the one who was named the SEC Player of the Year a season ago. Howard is second on the team in scoring at 14.3 per game, a sizable chunk below her average of 23.4 as a sophomore.
But the major difference between the Howard that scored 23-plus per game last year and the one scoring ~14 right now is the other options at her disposal. She didn’t have a Dre’Una Edwards type last year, a forward who plays and shoots like a point guard; someone who is prone to pop off for 20 points on any given night. The redshirt-sophomore already has three double-doubles this year, including a 14-point, 10-rebound game in the win over Indiana. Among all Kentucky players who have attempted at least 20 shots this season, Edwards is second on the team at 54.5 percent (30-55) while also connecting on 6-9 attempts from the 3-point line.
*Howard is actually the only player with at least 20 shot attempts who is shooting under 40 percent from the field.*
Chasity Patterson was a member of last year’s squad, however, she was only declared eligible for the second half of the season before eventually winning the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year award. Now a senior, the 5-foot-5 point guard has assumed the role of the lead ball-handler and has become an absolute menace on the defensive end. Patterson’s 13.6 points per game through five outings (on a 45.3 percent shooting clip, mind you) is highlighted by a 30-point season-opener against Murray State. Her 15 steals on the year are far-and-away the highest on the team, as she pickpockets anyone foolish enough to dangle the ball in front of her. It almost looks like a game inside of the game to Patterson when she’s locked in one-on-one in the backcourt with the opposing ball handler. She shows no fear in these situations and is incredibly smart about not fouling.
All this being said, Edwards and Patterson still have plenty to work on. They clearly do far more good than bad, but the bad is what needs to be shored up come tournament time. Edwards has a bad habit of not sliding on defense, although she is hardly the only Wildcat who falls victim to this mistake. Either way, it’s become a trend where she will simply fail to leave her defender in the paint if an opposing guard is driving to the rim, allowing wide-open, uncontested, frustrating layups at the rim.
On the other end of the floor, Patterson is still learning how to run the offense to her full potential. Her scoring prowess is undeniable, but if I had a dollar for every time Howard shot Patterson a glare after the latter missed an easy pass to a wide-open teammate, I’d be taking a nice beach vacation right now.
I’m also the furthest thing from a head coach, but it’s not hard to read body language on the court, especially when everyone in the building can hear what you’re saying too. It’s obvious this group has a level of cohesion to it that allows for more team play than the past two seasons, which is why I don’t foresee these minor issues sticking as we go deep into the season. However, it’s something I will still be keeping an eye on going forward.
So off the bat, we’ve seen three players who show the ability to explode for big scoring nights on any given moment; Howard, Edwards, and Patterson. But Kentucky wouldn’t be 5-0 without the help of two players, in particular: Robyn Benton and KeKe McKinney.
Key players to a deep tournament run
Benton, the transfer from Auburn who gained immediate eligibility not long before the season tipped off, has steadily been the energizer that Kentucky has desperately needed throughout some of these opening cupcake games. Even against Indiana, she nailed arguably the biggest shot of the season–a 3-pointer that cut IU’s lead down to one before she came right back down the floor and connected on two free-throws to give UK the lead–and has yet to play a minute this season where you didn’t notice her impact.
The junior guard is averaging 9.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the field. Benton has already dropped double-digit scoring outings twice, both of them against Kentucky’s toughest challengers in Kansas State and Indiana. When she gets a head of steam to the rim, she’s strong enough to muscle up tough shots even when she’s fouled. On the defensive end, she employs excellent (and I truly mean excellent) on- and off-ball pressure. Benton is just tall enough at 5-foot-9 to bother any opposing guard and just quick enough to stay in front of them. She’s already 10-12 from the free-throw line and is not scared to launch from deep (Benton leads the team with 21 3-point attempts). The best I can do to compare her to past players is by imagining that Amanda Paschal, Sabrina Haines, and Jaida Roper (the three starting guards from the 2019-20 roster who all graduated) were mixed into one hooper; that player is Robyn Benton.
But the unheralded star of the group, who has learned to love and embrace her role as sort of a “no stats” star, is KeKe McKinney. The senior forward isn’t going to stuff the box sheet outside of the minutes played number, but her impact is invaluable. McKinney is second on the team in minutes per game at 32.5, just slightly behind Howard’s 32.7 per game. She was also second on the team in minutes per game as a junior last year.
As I said, McKinney’s numbers won’t jump off the page, even if they are improving through the early stages of the season. A minor shoulder injury has her listed as day-to-day right now, but there isn’t a Wildcat on this roster that knows her role and executes it more perfectly than McKinney. She’s second on the team in rebounds at 26 (well behind the leader, who is Edwards with an outstanding 46), leads the team in blocks at five total, and her assists (8) outweigh her turnovers (3). She is everything you want in a veteran, leadership presence who has been a starter since she was a first-year rookie. Kentucky can bring in all the transfer talent it wants, but championships are won on the backs of vocal leaders like McKinney. Her second career double-double (10 points and 10 rebounds) came against Belmont earlier this season.
Remember, McKinney has already raised the idea of coming back for a fifth-year as the NCAA has allowed the 2020-21 season to not count towards future eligibility. She’s still getting better every day.
One player who has impressed the most
Everyone’s answer to the player who has impressed them the most through five games should be the junior guard from Harlan County, Blair Green.
If you answered with Dre’Una Edwards or Robyn Benton, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but those players have track records of greatness. Edwards was the Pac 12 Freshman of the Year at Utah before coming to Kentucky while Benton played two productive seasons at Auburn before transferring to UK. Green, on the other hand, saw tempered expectations heading into the new season.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault necessarily. Green was heavily hyped up ahead of her sophomore season as someone who could take a “leap” in her game, but even she admitted that her confidence wanned throughout the season and she never lived up to whatever expectations she supposedly had to meet a year ago.
That narrative has completely shifted course through five games. The 6-foot guard is averaging 9.6 points and 2.6 rebounds, including two double-figure scoring games and a career-high of 17 points in the most recent matchup against Marshall. The same Blair Green who used to look hesitant to shoot or even confidently dribble the basketball has vanished. Perhaps the reduced pressure of having to score now with so many talented players around her has allowed for some freedom. I would argue that Green has better chemistry with Howard than any of her teammates, which has earned the former plenty of scoring opportunities that she would never even attempt to work herself into a year ago.
Green is playing with a sense of confidence that was lost in her first two seasons. She wants to run the offense now and has done so on multiple occasions. She wants to play on-ball defense and now knows that she’s long and quick enough to bother most shooters. Through the first five games of the 2019-20 season, Green was 13-39 from the floor (33.3 percent). This season? She’s improved that shooting figure to 18-42 (42.9 percent) while playing starter minutes in an enhanced role (and this included a 0-7 shooting afternoon against Indiana). A season ago, Green played at least 25 minutes in only eight outings. She’s done that in four of the first five games this year.
Post play making the difference
It might not feel all that significant thus far, but the frontcourt play of Olivia Owens–and over the last two outings, Tatyana Wyatt–has shifted the way this Kentucky team runs its offense. Last season’s squad relied on hitting double-digit triples on a nightly basis (they did so on 14 occasions in 2019-20, but have yet to do so this season). They actually made a program-record for 3s in a season that year, but when you look at the overall size of that roster, it made sense.
Now they have Owens, a 6-foot-4 center who transferred from Maryland who has made an impact from the opening game. She’s not throwing up insane numbers, averaging just 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in under 15 minutes per game, but every second she’s on the floor creates scoring opportunities on both ends of the court that were not there a season ago. Owens is 12-21 from the floor thus far (57.1 percent) and has a series of go-to post moves that have proved to be nearly unstoppable through five games. It’s the threat of Kentucky being able to play inside-out, which they have done with success, that allows for Owens to make a notable impact even if she doesn’t play 25 minutes every night. The ‘Cats become two-dimensional whenever she’s on the court.
Kentucky is finally outrebounding teams by considerable margins and Owens’ presence is a big reason why. Last year, the ‘Cats only outrebounded its opponents in 10 of the 30 games played. This year? They’re outrebounding teams by nearly six boards per game.
The return of Wyatt after serving a three-game suspension has paid early dividends, as well. Like McKinney, Wyatt has worked her way into a consistent and important role throughout her Wildcat career. Now a senior, she’s settling into a role of knowing exactly what is expected of her and then executing that to the best of her ability. Wyatt’s 3-pointer against Indiana late in the third quarter was an energy burst that her team needed in the worst way. And who was right behind her on the bench, helping with her follow through? Olivia Owens, of course.
Rookies playing like rookies
Adjusting to the physicality of the college game is difficult no matter who the player is, even if the opponent is a non-Power 5 program. Kentucky’s trio of first-year players are quickly learning that.
Treasure Hunt, Nyah Leveretter, and Erin Toller all bring a unique set of skills to the table that we’ve seen glimpses of, but not across a steady timeline. Hunt is not shy at all in her abilities to score the ball–she has taken more shots already (18) than Leveretter and Toller combined (14)–and has the size to one day be a great offensive talent. Unfortunately, those shots aren’t necessarily falling right now (6-18 on the year). Hunt makes up for it by playing with high energy and generally making the smart basketball play, but she hasn’t shown enough through five games that would warrant Coach Elzy throwing her to the wolves in the coming weeks, especially against SEC foes.
Leveretter is the lone rookie of the group who I believe could have a steady role throughout the season if she can continue to play the way she has. The 6-foot-2 forward has an offensive game rawer than an uncooked steak, but she’s arguably the purest athlete on the team. No one can out-jump her. Leveretter fights for rebounds like she’s back in high school trying to spike a volleyball down the opponent’s backline. She has 14 rebounds in just three outings, eight of them coming in the win over an admittingly undersized Marshall frontcourt. But the effort is always present and there won’t be many teams who have a player who can leap out of the gym much like Leveretter can. Rebounding alone can–and should–earn her more minutes throughout the year.
Finally, we have backup point guard Erin Toller, who has an obvious feel for the game on offense. She thrives on running the system with the ball in her hands, even if she’s looked a bit rusty through her 20 minutes this season. Shooting the deep ball and splitting defenses are going to be her bread and butter down the road, but at just 5-foot-7 and still in her first year, adjusting is her primary focus right now.
Overall, Kentucky’s 5-0 start feels like the furthest thing from a fluke. Another ranked matchup against a DePaul team on the road looms, as do games against Arkansas (No. 13), Texas A&M (No. 10), South Carolina twice (No. 5), and Mississippi State (No. 12), which will give us a much clearer view at who this team actually is. They haven’t disappointed thus far against generally good opponents. However, there is still room for improvement.
Kentucky passed the first test, but there are plenty more challenging ones to come.