Tuesday has been a big day for basketball and it’s only going to get better. Not only does the NBA tip-off its 74th season later tonight, but the Kentucky women’s basketball team held its official Media Day this morning.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell answered questions from reporters for about 45 minutes before the media headed out to the Joe Craft Center practice gym, where they interviewed several of the players for this year’s squad and even got a sneak peek at what the team looks like during an open-practice.
Mitchell said the team has already gone through 20 practices and he’s beginning to get a better understanding of what this year’s version of UK Hoops will look like. The term “special season” has been used over and over by Mitchell in recent weeks and he had some high praise for what he believes is an incredibly intelligent team. Here are a few notes from what I heard and saw from my first appearance at Media Day.
The team held a secret scrimmage in Cincinnati against the Bearcats
Unfortunately, we don’t know the official score, but we do know that Kentucky went up to scrimmage against the Cincinnati Bearcats women’s team on Sunday. Jaida Roper spilled the beans on the secret scrimmage but said that both sides deleted the score after each quarter. So while we probably won’t ever know who won or how well any of the Wildcats performed, we do know that Roper said she liked what she saw overall.
“I love the chemistry so far,” Roper said. “We’re out here having fun.”
Expect a ton of small ball
Similar to last season, rebounding could be an issue with this team. The addition of 6-foot-3 transfer Nae Nae Cole will be a massive help in that area, but overall, keeping teams off the glass could resurface itself again. So how does the staff plan to counter that? With a potential four-guard lineup that will do everything in its power to run the opponent to death. But that also doesn’t mean they’ll be abandoning playing in the post altogether.
“We definitely have some players that can score around the basket,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We also have some guards that we can have score around the basket. We’re not going to be a traditional low-post power game. We will try to spread the floor.”
This roster is loaded with shooters (more on that momentarily) and has the ability to really space the offense and make defenses work and communicate to keep the ‘Cats out of rhythm. Which means ball movement will be vital, and Mitchell said that working with an inside-out approach on offense is when things really begin to click.
“Our offense is much better when we get a paint touch. I mean, by many many percentage points. We definitely need to play an inside out game.” Mitchell said. “I’m very comfortable with our inside presence.”
Outside of Ogechi Anyagaligbo and Cole (who Mitchell said both have range out to around 15 feet), Mitchell feels confident that every player can make the deep ball. Last season, four Wildcats shot the three at a clip of 34 percent of better. Only one of them – Maci Morris – is no longer with the team. And while the frontcourt of Tatyana Wyatt and KeKe McKinney combined to shoot 20-87 from deep last year, they have shown the capability and, more importantly, the confidence to knock down those outside looks. With the addition of freshman Emma King and transfers Sabrina Haines and Chasity Patterson, there is a possibility that this team will boast 8-9 players that can reliably take and make three-pointers.
We could see Rhyne Howard playing the 5
With the talk of going small and playing a 4-out style of offense, it means the team’s most versatile and talented player, Rhyne Howard, could find herself working all over the court. She even said that coach Mitchell has her and Blair Green splitting time playing at the 4 and 5 during practice.
“With our lineup, we have a very versatile group,” Howard said. “Like sometimes he’ll [Mitchell] put me and Blair at the 4 and 5. Sometimes I’ll be at the 1, 2, 3. Like, I could see myself playing down there.”
If coach Mitchell does decide to run a 5-out offense, he could produce a lineup with five excellent shooters that can all run up and down the floor. If rebounding isn’t going to be a key strength for this team once again, they appear to have a way to keep the defense off balance and forcing them to play the style of basketball that Kentucky wants to play. If this team dictates the pace, the rebounding issues might not be all that much of an issue at all.
Rhyne Howard attacking the opposing team’s center sounds like a recipe for a clip in her highlight reel. Defenses trying to defend a pick-and-roll featuring Chasity Patterson as the ball handler and Howard popping out or attacking the basket will be helpless.
Mitchell loves this team’s intelligence
Whenever he talks about this team as a whole or by an individual player, coach Mitchell has always been quick to praise the intelligence that he works with on a daily basis. In Tuesday’s press conference, Mitchell must have referenced four or five different players who he said are incredibly smart. And if a lack of size becomes a problem, being able to adapt and learn in real-time is going to be necessary.
Last season, Kentucky was solid in terms of keeping possession of the ball. They finished the year with a turnover rate that ranked in the 71st percentile, according to Her Hoops Stats, which was good enough for fifth-best in the SEC. Keep in mind, that was with two seniors as the primary ball handlers. With Morris and Murray now out of the picture, players like Howard, Jaida Roper, and Patterson are going to be in control of running the offense. Keeping turnovers to a minimum will be something to look for as the team heads into the back end of the schedule. The good news is coach Mitchell has been praising those three and a few others with how quickly they’ve been able to progress and clear up any mistakes.
Threes, threes, and more threes
“It’s not just going to be jack up a bunch of threes,” Mitchell said. “Although we’ll probably jack up a bunch of threes.”
Coach Mitchell laughed as he finished that sentence, but he’s speaking the truth. As I mentioned, this team has plenty of shooters from last season and added several more. Last year, Kentucky shot nearly 20 three-pointers game and converted on over 36 percent of them. 27.6 percent of the team’s overall points came from beyond the arc, fourth-highest in the SEC. Maci Morris shooting over 45 percent from deep helped inflate that overall percentage, but there is a bevy of shooters to choose from off this roster. From transfers Haines and Patterson, to King the freshman, to the returning players like Howard, Blair Green, Roper, and Amanda Paschal, there are endless options in both the starting lineup and off the bench that can put up a good outside shot.
Coach Mitchell said Haines can score at all three levels – inside, mid-range, and from deep.
“Great shooter,” Mitchell said, in reference to Sabrina Haines. “Has one of the most beautiful shots on our team. It just looks great leaving her hands.”
Haines and Patterson specifically could bring a much-needed punch to both sides of the ball. Haines as a stronger presence and Patterson as the quick and relentless guard.
“I think Sabrina Haines playing well this year is a big part of our formula to being special,” Mitchell said.
Replacing Maci Morris and Taylor Murray
There are plenty of options to choose from when picking out a player or two (or three) that can step up and replace some aspects of the game that recent graduates Maci Morris and Taylor Murray brought to the table. Learning from two great players – one an elite shooter, the other an elite on-ball defender – has been beneficial for everyone who has been with this team for at least a season.
Mitchell said he wants to see the same type of defensive intensity out of Patterson that Murray brought every game.
“I’d love for her [Patterson] to use that speed and quickness to really bother an opposing point guard on the defensive end,” Mitchell said. “I would really love for her to be able to harass the basketball and start our defense when she’s on the floor and really be disruptive. And so I see her growing in that area in practice.”
After sitting out the season due to NCAA transfer rules, she had a chance to watch Murray every day at practice, learning from one of the all-time great defenders to ever come through Lexington.
“I’ve made huge steps on defense,” Patterson said. “It really helped me [learning from Murray].”
Even Howard, the notoriously quiet and humble superstar, is slowly beginning to take on the challenge of being a team leader.
“She definitely stepped up [Howard],” Blair Green said of Howard stepping into a leadership role throughout the last year. “You can tell she was a leader on the floor. She’s still working vocally but every day she’s gradually getting a little bit more vocal and leading us. But she’s a lot by leading by example.”
Perhaps the most important piece to ensuring a constant vocal presence is the always smiling Jaida Roper. Not only through her “6-foot-8 mentality”, which she explained as “No matter how tall or big or fast you are, I’m going to try to outwork you. I’m gonna try to out-hustle you. The height will not get to me… I’m gonna outsmart you.”, but also by growing as a person.
Because Roper hasn’t always had that mentality. She said this was the first season she’s truly assumed the role of being a leader both on and off the court.
“Being just vocal, being there on and off the court,” Roper said. “See, I was lacking a lot of the off the court things for many years until I learned that’s how relationships are built… Off the court, I really feel like I’ve grown a personal connection with everyone.”
It’s going to be difficult replacing two of the very best to ever wear the blue-and-white, but this team has the depth that everyone can contribute in smaller ways that eventually climate into the big picture.
Confidence is not clearly lacking from this group. There are championship aspirations from the coaching staff down to the players. Not just an SEC Championship, but an NCAA Championship. When I asked Roper what her expectations for her senior season are, she gave me a blunt response that you could tell she fully believed in.
“I keep getting this question [about her expectations for this season] and it trips me up every time because the best thing I have to say is I want to accomplish everything people say we can’t accomplish,” Roper said. “So I wanna hang another banner, I want a ring on my finger, I want everything that has doubt in people’s mind that we can’t get to.
That includes a National Championship.”