It wasn’t the usual media day experience we’re all accustomed to, but Monday afternoon still provided the Big Blue Nation with their first look at a small portion of the 2020-21 Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team. Senior forward KeKe McKinney started off the interviews before junior guard Rhyne Howard and senior point guard Chasity Patterson came in to answer questions together at the end.
I went ahead and broke down the seven most “important” things we heard from the player’s first public media appearance in over a month. Here’s what we learned.
1. KeKe McKinney already considering return for fifth year
From the jump of the press conference, KeKe McKinney toyed with the idea of returning for a fifth season as a Kentucky Wildcat.
Due to COVID-19 and *waves wildly in the air* everything that has come as a result of it, this season of collegiate athletics is basically a free pass in terms of NCAA eligibility. Every student-athlete that plays or doesn’t play will be granted an extra year, meaning that seniors like McKinney could potentially come back for the 2021-22 season if she chooses to do so.
“I have actually put a lot of thought into it,” McKinney said during the virtual press conference on Monday. “And that is something that I am considering. I am going to leave it open. I don’t want to make any final decisions right now, but I am definitely interested in coming back for another year.”
Whether or not she will actually do so is obviously a decision meant to be answered at a later time, but her immediate interest in staying for a fifth year is intriguing, nonetheless. Not only is McKinney one of the team’s top overall players on both ends of the floor, but she’s also a vocal leader on and off of it. Her coming back–on top of the incoming and returning talent that the Wildcats will already have at its disposal–would continue to elevate this program to heights it has not seen before.
2. Rhyne Howard is talking her SH*T
Rhyne Howard has been labeled (sometimes by her own admission) as reserved and quiet through her first two seasons as a Kentucky Wildcat, despite her status as a rising superstar. It’s not that she’s overly humbled or too embarrassed to talk about her herself (quite the opposite in fact; she’s always known just how good she is and will openly talk about it when broached), but for what felt like the first time, she came out on the attack. She wasn’t cocky at all, rather somewhat annoyed–or excitedly pissed off, even. Howard was inexplicably left off the WBCA All-American list last season despite making every other major All-American Team.
She hasn’t forgotten the snub.
”It is definitely a huge motivator for me because I just felt like that was so disrespectful towards me and towards my game.” Howard said. “My teammates know how hard I was working and my coaches know how hard we were all working to make sure we did get as far as we would like as a team and just to make sure I never took any days off or anything like that. For them to leave me off, I was hurt a little bit but then I was like, ‘alright, now y’all have really made me mad because I was just taking it easy but now I can’t and I have to come at y’all.’”
To hear that is… scary. “I was just taking it easy”. She already plays the game as if it were too easy in the first place–and at times it is. But it helps that she has a supporting cast that is anything but a group of role players. A few of them will compete for All-SEC honors and awards. There are veterans across the board and talented underclass players. That kind of aid puts Howard’s mind at ease and takes off the never-ending pressure of having to score 25-plus every night, even if she’ll try to anyway.
“I don’t really feel any pressure because I don’t feel a reason to be pressured,” Howard added. “I have my teammates behind me and we have a great team this year. I got Chasity [Patterson] on the point and like KeKe [McKinney] said, I got her and Olivia [Owens] and the newcomers, we got all them. We are going to have a great team and they are there to lift the pressure off of me and if I do get pressured I know I can go to them or go to my coaches and they will make it easier for me. They can make sure I am staying focused on making the right plays for my team.”
Throughout her entire interview, Howard spoke at length in response to nearly every question; a far way to come from her early bashful days in front of the microphone. More than anything, it spoke to her maturity and understanding of the situation she is in. Howard is the best player in the country on one of the nation’s top teams, but she’s also lent her voice to social activism, speaking out against racial injustices through player-led marches and social media outreach. Using her voice is about more than just discussing jump shots and bounce passes.
Expectations are heavy, but Howard has done everything right so far to prove that she’s ready to meet that challenge head-on.
3. Nyah Leveretter and Dre’Una Edwards receiving hype
During the interviews, two specific players were listed off as newcomers that are making an early mark in practice: first-year forward Nyah Leveretter and redshirt sophomore Dre’Una Edwards.
Edwards has technically been with the team since before the start of the 2019-20 season but sat out that year due to NCAA transfer rules (while also recovering from an ACL injury) and is finally shining in the early stages of the preseason. Remember, Edwards was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year during her lone season at Utah and a top high school talent.
Leveretter, on the other hand, is an incoming four-star prospect who exudes potential with a long 6-foot-3 frame. Doubling as a volleyball star in high school, she possesses a combination of athleticism and size that is rare to come across.
“I want to say everybody because everybody is doing so well,” McKinney said about players that have impressed her. “But, the two people that are standing out so far for me is Dre [‘Una Edwards] and Nyah [Leveretter]. You know, Dre is coming back from an injury and she had to make a lot of changes over the past year, and she is doing very well. She looks great, she is running great and she is doing great. And, Nyah, she just never runs out of gas. Nyah is really impressing me as a freshman, and I think we’re going to have big things coming from her. But then again, everybody is doing so well right now, and I am loving what I am seeing.”
4. Update on Howard’s pinky injury (she’s fine)
Back in late January of 2020 (which is somehow less than 11 months ago), Howard fractured the pinky finger on her non-shooting hand during an interconference win over Auburn. While she surprisingly only sat out three games, Howard played the rest of the season in a bulky looking cast that clamped three of her fingers together. And although it didn’t necessarily affect her production–she scored at least 20 points in the team’s final eight games following her return–she clearly wasn’t 100 percent healthy. The cast got smaller and less-invasive as the season wore on, but now she’ll have all freedom of movement back in her guide hand this year.
Heading into the new season, she says everything is good to go, with the exception of a crooked finger.
“All good,” Howard said about her finger. “Well, it is still crooked but I have full range with this hand.”
If she’s good, we’re good.
5. Everyone has stayed in excellent shape
Despite the restrictions placed upon each individual during the pandemic shutdown, the three players–and all of their teammates, from the sound of it–have stayed in tremendous shape throughout the elongated offseason. Without constant trainer supervision in a controlled setting, it could have been easy to fall victim to poor workout and eating habits. But not for these top-level athletes; if anything, they sound more in-shape than ever before.
“When I was at home, it got in the gym every day,” Howard said. “Most of the time it would be three hours or so with my trainer and also with my new teammates, Treasure [Hunt] and Jazmine [Massengill]. We knew that the summer was going to be a big time to get ahead of the competition or maintain and staying in shape because a lot of people didn’t have access to gym or couldn’t get out and put the work in that they normally do. We knew we had to capitalize on our resources and what we could. I worked on pretty much everything. I worked on conditioning in our drills and everything we would do we would make sure had some running in there.”
Patterson was also blessed enough to have a personal trainer back home who could run her through vigorous workouts multiple times a day for hours on end.
“I was fortunate to get into the gym with my trainer and like Rhyne said just stay in shape,” Patterson said. “That was big for us. Strength and conditioning for me, every week I would go to my strength and conditioning coach and we would do weights and conditioning and then later in the day I would go to the gym and work out for three hours and go through drills and shooting drills and just ball-handling and stuff like that.”
6. Howard and Chasity Patterson talk Final Four
It’s no secret that the Kentucky Women’s Basketball program has yet to make an NCAA Final Four in its still-growing history, but they have come close on several occasions. Head coach Matthew Mitchell led a four-year run from 2009-13 that saw three Elite 8 appearances and a trip to the second round, but he could never get them over that final hump. The ‘Cats have made two Sweet 16s since then and are constant participants of the NCAA tournament, however, they have not had a team with the talent level of the upcoming roster.
Howard and Patterson both understand what is on the line: A Final Four is the goal, but an SEC Championship is the first order of business.
“It [a Final Four appearance] would mean a lot, even an SEC Championship would mean a lot,” Howard said. “University of Kentucky women’s basketball hasn’t won that since 2012 so to bring that and a national championship in the same year would be phenomenal. It would prove how much we worked for it and took the time to put the work in and never give up and just do what everyone says we couldn’t do.”
For Patterson, part of the reason she transferred away from the University of Texas as a highly-rated recruit was so she could come help lead Kentucky to the promised land.
“It would mean a lot, being able to first get a SEC Championship, would be great,” Patterson added. “This is a tough conference and everybody is a tough opponent so making that happen and then also a national championship would mean everything. For me, coming into this program I wanted to be able to help lead them to a national championship and that would be special for me to come down here and be a part of that.”
7. Howard and Patterson can BOTH shoot from NBA range
We already knew Howard could hit from 25-plus feet, but apparently Patterson can, too.
She’s been given the green light–as have most of the players on the floor in a Matthew Mitchell offense–to shoot when she has a decent look. Patterson alleges that she and Howard can “both shoot from NBA range”, and we’ve seen in the professional ranks how the deep deep-ball has changed the way defenses defend beyond the perimeter. The college three-point line is 20-feet, nine-inches while the NBA mark is 23-feet, nine-inches. Being able to fire accurately from an extra three feet beyond the arc will be an underrated weapon.
On Thursday, we’ll hear from the coaches for the first time this preseason, so make sure to stay tuned to the site for everything you need to know about this team from the staff who knows them better than anyone.