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What to Expect From UK Hoops Heading Into Conference Play

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After undergoing his most difficult season as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball team last year, Matthew Mitchell has the 2018-19 version of his squad looking dangerous and well-prepared heading into the SEC conference play this Thursday.

The 18th ranked Wildcats are 13-1 on the season, with the lone blemish coming on the road against the currently third-ranked Lousiville Cardinals. They’ve beaten their fair share of obviously inferior opponents but wins over a ranked South Florida team, North Carolina, and in overtime against UCLA – including the utter domination of quality teams such as Murray State and Virginia – have proven that this team has the talent and coaching to potentially make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

But before they can dream that far ahead, there is a monster of a conference schedule the lies in their way. Including Kentucky, five SEC teams are ranked in the top 25 – Tennessee (10), Mississippi State (8), Texas A&M (23), and South Carolina (25) – and an unranked Auburn team with only one loss (although the Tigers schedule thus far is cluttered with colleges I still don’t believe exist). So how can expect this Kentucky team to perform as we hit the halfway point of the season? Let’s dive a bit deeper into it.

The senior guards

The team begins and ends with the two senior guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. They are number two and three, respectively, on the team in scoring as Morris averages 16.1 points per game while Murray averages 14.1. I can’t speak for every team in the country, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more complementary backcourt than these two ladies.

Morris, the Kentucky native, has been a scoring fiend this year. She’s already up to number 15 on the Kentucky all-time scoring list and has been filling it up from deep this season. She’s shot 45.1 percent this season on a team-high 82 three-point attempts and is knocking down just a hair below 89 percent of her free throws. There has never been a question of who the leader of this team is, it always has been and always will be the girl from Bell County.

Murray is the ice to Morris’ fire. When Morris is lighting teams up for six or eight points in a matter of seconds, Murray is on the other end causing a level of havoc that makes opposing head coaches rip their hair out. At five-foot-six, Murray does not hesitate to get right up in the grill of the ball handler and follow their every move, most of the time staying two or three steps ahead. She’s an instinctual defender, one who always seems to come up with the ball when things start to break down. She averages 3.62 steals per game – 13th in the nation – and is the leading force behind Kentucky ranking 10th in the country in steals per game at 12.7. Murray is the most cold-blooded player on this team.

They both spearhead the devastating full-court press that Kentucky has wielded this season. Morris isn’t as quick as Murray – and that might find her in some trouble against quick SEC guards – but makes up for it with incredibly shifty feet and even quicker hands. Morris has mastered the ability to slide her feet in of the defender no matter how much faster they are than her. For Murray, she is always the fastest player on the court.

This segues perfectly into my next topic…

The full court press

The full court press has been the staple of this Kentucky team. Littered with quality backcourt defenders who can sprint up and down the court that know how/when to trap, Kentucky has demoralized teams with how fierce their press can be when it’s at it’s best. Kentucky forces 23.9 turnovers per game, good enough for fifth in the country. The majority of those steals come in the back half of the court courtesy of Murray.

But Murray isn’t the only one who plays the full court press to perfection. As mentioned earlier, Morris has done an excellent job this season of using her length and feet to force turnovers. What really makes the press so effective is being able to bring two more quality backcourt players off the bench. Jaida Roper and Amanda Paschal are the perfect duo to replace Morris and Murray. All four are versatile and interchangeable, so coach Mitchell has no problem having to decide who pairs best with who. We’ll get more into Roper’s impact in a minute, but it’s important to stress how vital she and Paschal are to the press.

If teams do manage to beat the guards up the court, they have to stare down KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt as they head towards the basket. Both standing over six-feet tall, they deter smaller guards from penetrating the paint and have done a great job this season of not over fouling in those situations. Against SEC competition is where the press is going to meet it’s most talented challenge.

Kentucky is holding opponents to 55.4 points per game this season, 31st in the country. The SEC is going to put that number to the test immediately.

In several games this season, Kentucky has been able to crush teams by simply beating them with talent. The multiple 40-plus point victories we saw earlier in the year will be few and far between as the Wildcats will face a quality opponent almost every single night. Teams that have studied them longer than anyone else up to that point and know their tendencies on both sides of the court. I don’t expect this to discourage coach Mitchell from running the press – it’s what makes them a dangerous unit and there aren’t many teams across the country that can keep up with them for a full 40 minutes – but I do think there will be times that it will become ineffective and more of a liability, especially when teams like Tennessee and Mississippi State are on the menu.

*Side note: Kentucky plays Mississippi State in seven days and Tennessee in 11.*

Kentucky is going to live or die by pressing and they seem content with that strategy. My fear is that it might be exploited against superior teams to the point that it takes them out of their game, but there are going to be much more games where it’s the main reason they got the win.

The importance of the two freshman

It’s somewhat criminal that it’s taken me until now to mention Rhyne Howard, considering she’s the team’s leading scorer (17.6 points per game) and rebounder (7.4 per game), but it’s for good reason. Howard deserves her own section. She is without a doubt the best player on this Kentucky team. While the seniors Murray and Morris are more *essential* to the team, the freshman from Tennessee is far and away the most talented of the group.

She’s six-foot-two and plays like a point forward. She has the most advanced scoring profile of any of her teammates. There isn’t a single spot on the floor that she can’t knock down a shot from. Howard has hit the 20-point mark on five separate occasions this season, including a 25-point, 10-rebound performance against in-state rival Louisville. She’s knocked down 44.7 percent of her 76 attempted three-pointers this season and has gotten to the free-throw line more than any of her teammates. Her and Morris have been a constant problem for defenses when they curl around screens to pop open for quick jumpers. Howard can get her shot off over just about anyone. There’s an almost casual and listless feel to her game. Not in the sense that it doesn’t look like she’s trying hard, but in the sense that she just makes it look so damn easy. As if she doesn’t need to exert any effort to drop 20 points.

And it’s a frightening spectacle to watch.

If Kentucky wants to pull off some of these upsets over the top teams in the SEC, Howard is going to need at least another five more 20-point outings, if not 10 of them. But if there is one player on this team capable of taking over a game on a moments notice, it’s Howard.

Another key piece to this team is freshman Blair Green. The Harlan County product doesn’t have the stats that Howard produces, but she’s vitally important to the second unit. Green has a great faceup game and, like Howard, can knock down jumpers from any spot on the court. She’s hit seven of her 19 three-point attempts this season and has scored eight or more points in seven games this season – including two straight. She knows how to play the press and provides a scoring spark off the bench.

The emergence of Jaida Roper

Roper might be my personal favorite player to watch on this team right now. While it is undeniably fun to watch Rhyne Howard and Maci Morris pile on points by the truckload or Taylor Murray rip the soul right out from the inside of a ball handler, Roper has been the constant sparkplug off the bench.

The junior is having her best statistical season by a considerable margin, averaging 9.0 points and 2.8 assists in 21 minutes per game. She’s recorded at least six assists in three straight games now and has been – by my eagle eyes – the best passer on this team. Murray leads the team with 61 assists, but Roper has been right behind her, doing an amazing job of penetrating and kicking the ball out to a shooter. Her rainbow three-point jumper puts fans in a trance as the ball seems to never want to come back to earth before hitting nothing but the bottom of the net. She’s hit nearly 46 percent of her threes this season and leads the team in that category.

Her intensity on defense, especially in the press, has been essential to maintaining the pace the Cats want to play. She’s become a vocal leader on the court and is making an impact every night she steps on the court. She is what you might call the “X-Factor”.

This Kentucky team has a legitimate shot at making their fourth Elite Eight run under Matthew Mitchell. They have an experienced, elite level backcourt, a scoring freshman phenom, pesky defenders, size in the paint, and shooters spread all across the floor. It’s no accident they’ve cracked into the top 25 rankings after starting the season way under the radar. I wouldn’t be surprised if this team finishes as one of the best in Mitchell’s tenure.

SEC play kicks off against Vanderbilt in Memorial Coliseum at 7 p.m.

Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA. Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan