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Getting to know the 2020-21 Kentucky Women’s Basketball Team: First-years and sophomores

(@KentuckyWBB)

(@KentuckyWBB)

The incoming rendition of the Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball team will be headlined by several juniors and seniors, including the likely favorite to win National Player of the Year, but the roster turnover from a season ago has brought in plenty of fresh faces.

Five seniors departed from a year ago, three of them rotational guards–Jaida Roper, Sabrina Haines, Amanda Paschal–along with forwards Ogechi Anyagaligbo and Nae Nae Cole. Deasia Merrill, who missed her freshman season after tearing her ACL, transferred to Georgia State back in July.

But eight players will return, three of them starters and another two key who came off the bench, along with the addition of one immediately eligible transfer. Chasity Patterson, winner of the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year award a season ago, will likely move into the starting point guard role. Overall, a massive chunk of the scoring, rebounding, and defensive production will be back.

This will be part one of a two-part series, intended to give the basketball-crazed Big Blue Nation a closer look at the 2020-21 UK Hoops squad. College basketball is under six weeks away now and it’s been far too long since we’ve gone in-depth on the women’s program, so let’s change that. Expectations are higher than usual for head coach Matthew Mitchell and rising superstar Rhyne Howard, who will undoubtedly be featured on every preseason All-American roster, but there is talent sprouting from all corners of the roster. To open this mini-series, let’s start with the younger crew who are eager to take the court at Memorial Coliseum.

Three incoming freshmen (Treasure Hunt, Nyah Leveretter, and Erin Toller) will suit up in the blue-and-white for the first time at the end of November while redshirt sophomores Dre’Una Edwards and Olivia Owens will do the same. Joining those five as the sixth and final underclass player we’ll be discussing is sophomore Emma King, who appeared in 15 games a year ago. Here’s what you need to know about these six, starting with the second-year ladies.

Dre’Una Edwards and Olivia Owens (transfers)

Dre’Una Edwards initially made her way to Lexington after transferring from Utah. An ACL tear late during her freshman season back in 2018-19 derailed the conclusion to what was a fantastic year for the forward. Despite being forced to sit out a few regular-season games and the Pac-12 Tournament due to the injury, she was still named the conference’s Freshman of the Year, putting up impressive averages of 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in 26 outings. Then, she elected to make the move to Kentucky after Utah missed the NCAA Tournament, and Edwards was sidelined for the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules, making her a redshirt sophomore leading into the fresh season. You probably haven’t heard her name yet, but she will be a valuable piece in the frontcourt going forward.

During her short stint with the Utes, Edwards was one of the nation’s premier rebounders, ranking among the top 93 percentile in both offensive and defensive rebounding among all players as a rookie in a Power 5 conference, according to Her Hoop Stats. At 6-foot-2, she will immediately bring some necessary size and rebounding to the floor, likely off the bench. Over the last couple of seasons, the ‘Cats have ranked as one nation’s worst rebounding teams; Edwards can help alleviate that issue. Not to mention, she shot 54 percent from the floor at Utah, good enough for third-highest in the Pac-12.

She hasn’t played organized basketball since Feb. of 2019 but has a proven skillset around the basket. KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt will soak up the starting minutes in the frontcourt, but Edwards could very well be the first player off the bench to replace one of them.

Olivia Owens was the surprise addition to the 2020-21 roster, gaining immediate eligibility earlier on Thursday after transferring from Maryland back in July. At 6-foot-4, she will instantly tower over her teammates as the tallest player on the roster and could very well compete for a starting position.

Following two seasons with the Terrapins where she didn’t find the floor all that often–mostly sitting on the bench during her first season before missing her sophomore year due to medical concerns–Owens can make an immediate impact heading into the new season. As we just discussed above with Edwards, Owens is going to be able to battle down low for loose rebounds unlike any player Matthew Mitchell has had since Evelyn Akhator back in 2017. She graduated high school as one of the nation’s premier frontcourt prospects (No. 34 in ESPN’s 2018 recruitment rankings and a five-star talent), but never found her rhythm at a Maryland program that finished either first or second in the Big Ten every season since 2012.

Brining Owens into the fold is going to create some of those “good problems” for coach Mitchell. KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt are the two veteran forwards, but possibly supplementing Owens in favor of Wyatt to open games would allow Kentucky to attack the glass at will with McKinney stretching the floor. Then, whenever Wyatt and Dre’Una Edwards come off the bench, that production won’t dissipate. Kentucky has been lacking a dominant low post presence; Owens will bring that versatility.

Emma King (returnee)

Emma King is the only player of the bunch who has actually seen the floor under coach Mitchell, but it came in a very limited role as a freshman one season ago. The former Lincoln County High School standout only played in 15 games for the ‘Cats, spread across 106 total minutes. King added 21 points throughout the season, entering the game mostly in the closing stages of blowouts; her best attribute is outside shooting.

She stands tall for a shooter at 5-foot-10, which allows her more airspace to fire up shots from beyond the arc. King went just 4-19 from deep as a freshman, but has an incredibly quick release on her jumper and always hustled hard. It’s hard to say right now what her role will look like as a sophomore, considering there will be a couple of upperclassmen ahead of her. Can she steal minutes from junior Blair Green or redshirt junior Kameron Roach? Until we get a better idea of what is happening during practice (which officially began on Wednesday for all Divison I schools), King is going to be near the bottom of the projected rotation.

Kentucky has always been her dream school, though, and she came to play for the Wildcats when she could have earned more playing time somewhere else. Don’t count out King to step in and play some big minutes early in the season.

The Freshies: Treasure Hunt, Nyah Leveretter, and Erin Toller

One five-star and two four-stars: not a bad haul for the 2020 recruiting class.

Treasure Hunt is the headliner, ranking as a top-10 player in her class according to All Star Girls Report while ESPN tabbed her as a five-star prospect. She mimics her childhood friend, Rhyne Howard, in plenty of ways, although they are hardly the same player. Hunt is an elite scorer for her age that she combines with a 6-foot-1 frame. Similar to Howard, they are both casual with their style of play, but not in a cocky fashion; they are more reserved than anything. Hunt can dribble the ball up the floor with precision, score from every area of the court, and play/defend multiple positions. There’s a high chance that she comes in as a starter on day one and a top candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year.

Howard and Hunt have known each other for a longgg time, adding another layer of chemistry to a tag-team duo that should create all sorts of chaos for opposing defenses. Nobody could stop Howard from dropping 20 points every single night, so how do they expect to do it this season with Hunt lurking in the shadows?

Nyah Leveretter is the most intriguing piece to the upcoming roster, in my opinion. She was a highly-touted four-star recruit out of South Carolina, ranking as a top 100 recruit by ESPN in her class (No. 83) while doubling as an elite volleyball star. Leveretter is a tall 6-foot-3 forward with length and impressive athleticism for her size; the perfect recipe for a Matthew Mitchell-coached defense.

In high school, she showed off her ability to bring the ball up and down the floor through speed and quickness. Leveretter is already adept at running the fastbreak as a forward, a skill that will easily translate to a Kentucky defensive system that loves to force turnovers and create quick points on the break.

Erin Toller was recently bumped up from a three-star prospect to a four-star by ESPN back in July, moving the 5-foot-7 point guard up to No. 91 overall in ESPN’s 2020 rankings. The Louisville native overcame a series of injuries throughout her high school career at Sacred Heart Academy and will come to Kentucky as one of three true point guards on the roster (Patterson and Roach). Toller exploded onto the recruiting scene during her senior season, showing off her ability shoot from beyond the arc and run an offense. Patterson will likely start out as the go-to point guard, but Toller will definitely be competing for early season minutes against Roach.

Next up, we’ll breakdown the upperclassmen. On the 2020-21 roster are three seniors and six juniors, although two of those third-year players (Jazmine Massengill and Robyn Benton) will sit out the upcoming season after transferring this past offseason. That leaves a star-studded group of Rhyne Howard, Chasity Patterson, Tatyana Wyatt, KeKe McKinney, Blair Green, and Kameron Roach left to discuss.

Stay tuned.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR