Is this real life? Or am I still dreaming it’s April?
Believe it or not, college basketball officially begins today. The start of the season comes a bit later into the year than expected, but we’re not going to be picky right now. Basketball starts TODAY and there’s a particular team in Lexington that boasts a preseason No. 11 ranking and the best overall player in the entire country. Expectations are high–as they should be–but they should also be tempered; a truncated offseason due to the ongoing pandemic and a last-minute head coaching change has put the Kentucky Wildcats Women’s Basketball Team in a tougher situation than most–which is saying a lot.
The transition from a retiring Matthew Mitchell to Kyra Elzy gaining the interim head coaching tag shouldn’t be as bumpy as a traditional shift in power, considering Elzy’s experience in Lexington and learning under Mitchell for eight seasons. She has been in control of the practice sessions for months now. But even still, Elzy was named the head coach not even two weeks ahead of the season-opener. No one is quite sure what exactly this version of the 2020-21 UK Hoops squad will look like, but we’re going to receive our first taste in just a few hours.
At 1 p.m. on the SEC Network+, the No. 11 Kentucky Wildcats will host an in-state showdown against the Murray State Racers inside of what will be a sparsely-filled Memorial Coliseum. But before we get into what you need to know about MSU, here are some quick links to help familiarize yourself with what has been an entertaining group of ladies to cover thus far.
- Coach Elzy wants to “hang our hat on our defense” through the opening week of games.
- ESPN overwhelmingly believes Rhyne Howard is the best player in the country. Welcome to the club.
- A tough non-conference schedule will have this year’s team far more prepared than a season ago.
- MUST-READ: Kyra Elzy breaks down every single player on the roster in an exclusive interview with KSR.
- Auburn transfer Robyn Benton has gained IMMEDIATE eligibility and will play on opening day.
- Kyra Elzy is prepared for this moment as a first-year head coach.
Alright, now that you’re all caught up, let’s dive into what we know about Murray State.
*SPOILER: Not much!*
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) November 25, 2020
MURRAY STATE RACERS
A season ago, Murray State finished the year with a record of 14-16, posting a 7-11 mark in the OVC. By all accounts, they were a middling team in a non-Power 5 conference, but they are looking to take a massive leap in the coming season as they’ll return a majority of its production from 2019-20. MSU is set to return an incredible 79.5 percent of its scoring and 78.4 percent of its rebounding from a season ago, highlighted by two Preseason All-OVC Team honorees, Macey Turley (All-OVC First Team in 2019-20) and Alexis Burpo (All-OVC Second Team in 2019-20).
Those two, both rising juniors, fueled the Racers as the team’s top scorers a year ago and will likely do the same again this season. Turley is a 5-foot-6 hometown guard who poured in a team-high 16.6 points per game in 2019-20 but she shot just 35.2 percent from the field overall as a sophomore. She actually missed the end of last season to an injury that sidelined her throughout the postseason but will be healthy and ready to suit up later today. Burpo is another Murray native who stands at 5-foot-10 playing both the guard and forward positions. She averaged 10.3 points and 7.2 rebounds as a sophomore and was mainly an inside scoring threat. MSU also returns its next three-highest scoring players from a season ago; Laci Hawthorne, Lex Mayes, and Macie Gibson, who combined to average nearly 30 points per game last year. Eight players from last season’s roster will return this year, including all five starters.
While the overall talent level might not be on par with that of the Wildcats, Murray State has the experience and scoring potential to jump out early on Kentucky if the ‘Cats don’t come out prepared from the opening tip. Racers head coach Rechelle Turner is about to embark on her fourth season as the lead woman at her alma mater. She’s about as Kentucky as you can get, spending 21 winning seasons at the high school ranks with Murray High School before staying home and making the leap to the college ranks.
Despite her career coaching record of a mere 38-52 at Murray State, the 2020-21 season is the first opportunity Turner has had to make a mark in the OVC with a team that is all due to her credit. Turner has slowly improved the Racers’ win total year-over-year. All that being said, the OVC coaches still picked MSU to finish eighth overall in the conference. However, Turner’s squad was projected to finish last in the OVC a year ago and ultimately finished sixth. So do with that all information what you will.
Kentucky hasn’t dropped a season-opener since 2009 and they haven’t lost to Murray State in the last 15 meetings between the two KY-based schools. This will be the 19th time throughout history these two programs face-off, but the first time they meet for a season-opener. UK is 38-8 overall in home openers, winners of 11 in a row.
This should be a perfect opportunity for Elzy, Rhyne Howard, and company to quickly prove they’re ready to compete for a Final Four. There will most definitely be some rust on both sides of the court, but this is a “feel it out” type of game for Kentucky that they realistically shouldn’t have any issues controlling by the time the second half rolls around. What I would be on the lookout for is how Elzy starts off her rotations and which players have earned the early season minutes. Dre’Una Edwards, Nyah Leveretter, Treasure Hunt, and Olivia Owens are all somewhat “unknown” players on the roster who I am especially excited to see take the floor for the first time.
And of course, Rhyne Howard has the biggest chip on her shoulder despite the numerous amounts of awards and recognitions she’s already received over the past few weeks. It’s going to be a fun season (if we can make it all the way through), so make sure to tune in at 1 p.m. on the SEC Network+ to get the first peek at what could be a special team and year for the Wildcats.