Kyra Elzy hasn’t had much time–if any–to fully soak in the situation she now finds herself in.
It was a shock to the entire Big Blue Nation when Matthew Mitchell announced he would be stepping down with Elzy set to replace him for the upcoming season as the interim head coach. With under two weeks before the regular season is set to tipoff, there would be no time to celebrate her promotion or prepare for an offseason. But as far as the players are concerned, Elzy has been the head coach since practice began in the middle of October while Mitchell was still recovering.
The transition of power appears complicated from the outside, but looking in, transferring from Mitchell to Elzy couldn’t have been a more ideal process. She’s been around the program for a total of eight full seasons now–all under Mitchell–and is about to embark on her ninth, her first as the woman in charge. If anyone could slide in to replace Mitchell, the easiest choice was Kyra Elzy.
The morning of the announcement that Elzy would step in to replace a retiring Mitchell, I had the opportunity to speak with Coach Elzy (without any idea that she would be named the head coach just hours later) and pick her brain about every member of the 2020-21 roster. Here’s what she had to say about each individual player, starting with a pair of forwards who have received significant preseason hype.
Nyah Leveretter: 6-foot-3 (Fr.)
“The thing that sets Nyah [Leveretter] apart from a lot of people, her motor is so high it’s unbelievable. She only knows one speed and that is 110 miles per hour. That makes her different, she is the X-Factor. She plays hard. Offensively she is still obviously a freshman, learning how to set the screens, where to set the screens on the defense. We tease her about slowing down offensively; we tell her you cannot drive through a neighborhood at 110 miles per hour, so offensively you need to be playing about 50 or 60, speed-wise.
“Defensively, playing at 110 and we love it, but what I love about her is no matter what happens–whether she misses the shot, whether she misses a pass–she is going to get some offensive boards and she gives us extra possessions. She just flies in and flies around which makes our offense different. And then defensively, she fits our style perfect where we are disruptive and we want to make teams play helter-skelter. She is long, she is athletic and one of the things I didn’t mention offensively is she can run the floor like a guard. We can throw it over the top to her and she can lay it up. Defensively she can trap, she can block shots, and she just flies around. So the energy she brings is simply contagious.”
Dre’Una Edwards: 6-foot-2 (R-So.)
“She [Dre’Una Edwards] brings a different dimension to our team that we hadn’t had as far as versatility. She has really stepped up to the challenge of becoming fit, so she’s able to play so hard on both sides of the court, which makes her extremely dynamic. She can move for her size, she is extremely skilled offensively. She’s an unbelievable passer, she can shoot the 3, she’s physical, she can post up, so in that sense she just gives us a different dimension offensively. Defensively, she does not mind banging, she will fly around and she is relentless on the boards.
“She does have the ability to stretch the floor. What’s been fun to watch in practice is she can get it off the glass and lead the break and she can make phenomenal decisions as far as passing. She can take it in and score, she can pick and pop and shoot the 3. So our hope for her is that we will able to play her in multiple positions. She has a really high basketball IQ as well.”
Edwards and Leveretter have drawn immediate praise from the coaching staff and their teammates, alike. Edwards was previously the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year at Utah before transferring and sitting out last season. In my personal opinion, she is easily the player I am most excited to watch for the first time this year. The potential she brings as an all-around offensive threat at 6-foot-2 is unlike anyone else on the roster not named Rhyne Howard.
Leveretter brings a different type of inside presence than Edwards, but they mirror each other as forwards who can handle the basketball. Leveretter has a slender body frame with incredibly long arms which makes her an impossible cover for slower post players.
But Coach Elzy mentioned one other player we should all be keeping our eyes out for: rising junior and Kentucky native Blair Green. Many expected her to break out as a sophomore following an impressive first-year debut, but she never quite hit her stride throughout the 2019-20 season, mainly due to a steady reduction in confidence. But she’s playing free and loose throughout the early stages of the preseason and her new head coach has taken notice.
Blair Green: 6-foot-0 (Jr.)
“Blair Green is playing extremely well. She has really come into her own. She’s playing with a lot of confidence right now which she kind of lost a year ago but she now has that back. She’s able to play the 3 and the 4 so that goes back to the versatility that we mentioned earlier. She’s playing at an extremely high pace, so she’s running off screens, she’s extremely fit but what stands out right now, she is shooting the ball extremely well. Catch and shoot in transition, running off screens. A year ago we couldn’t really get her to slow down and come off the ball screens and make reads, which she has been a lot better at. Defensively, she’s just let loose. A year ago she was really afraid to get beat or make a mistake, now she’s flying around, using her length and she is playing the best basketball that she’s played since she’s been here.
“She has bulked up, she worked really hard this summer. And Blair is one of our hardest workers. She will come in, watch film with the coaches, she gets extra shots. So whatever it takes to help enhance and improve her game, she is willing to do and go above and beyond. She really understands how she can help this team and where she fits in, and obviously scoring is what she always brought, but I think a year ago she only focused on that instead of the whole game, and this year it has really clicked with her and she’s playing unbelievable.”
It’s not just those three that have made a solid impression in the early stages of practice, either. The steady veteran presence of senior forwards KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt have been vital both on the hardwood and in helping the underclass players transition head coaches right before the season. McKinney is arguably the team’s second-most reliable player behind Howard while Wyatt has plenty of experience playing in high-profile games over the course of the last three seasons.
They aren’t going to be the topic of conversation when discussing this team, but they are necessary components: two forwards both over 6-foot-1 who provide a clear and consistent production from the moment they step on the court to the moment they head back to the bench. McKinney and Wyatt are indispensable.
KeKe McKinney: 6-foot-1 (Sr.)/Tatyana Wyatt: 6-foot-2 (Sr.)
“I’ve been so proud of them [KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt], both of them have been great leaders. They have really taken the underclassmen and the transfers under their wing along with Rhyne Howard and Kameron Roach to make sure that we were up to speed.
“Obviously we missed a whole summer out due to the coronavirus so we had to really do everything virtual. When we came back we really hit the ground running so it was great to have veterans that could show our underclassmen and our transfers what our culture is and what the standards and expectations are on the floor. But KeKe has been really steady as far as her play, she has shot the ball well. One of her goals is to enhance her game offensively which she started to do last year. I think she is a lot more confident offensively. Defensively, she does what she does for us. Sh’es going to bring the energy, she’s going to play hard defensively, she’s going to rebound the basketball and really just bring that emotional energy.
“As far as Tatyana Wyatt, I like to call her the silent assassin. Has an extremely high basketball IQ, knows exactly what we want offensively and defensively. I think having KeKe and ‘Dre and Nyah and Olivia [Owens], other posts, that has really taken the pressure off her while she was trying to get her confidence back coming off injuries with her foot. She has relaxed more and it feels like she can just bring what she brings and doesn’t have to play outside of herself.”
McKinney and Wyatt can both stretch the floor for Kentucky, which makes up for the lack of a couple of extra inches in height. But Kentucky never truly had a pure post presence a season ago. This year they do, and it comes in the form of a 6-foot-4 transfer from Maryland named Olivia Owens.
Olivia Owens: 6-foot-4 (R-So.)
“Olivia [Owens] does bring a different dimension, along with ‘Dre[Una Edwards], in that we have an inside presence. We’ve always wanted to score inside out, that keeps the defense honest. The last couple of years we’ve really had to rely on our outside shooting, which we have shot the ball well, but to really keep the defense honest you really need to play inside-out. Olivia brings that to us, she wants to be in the post, she likes physical play. We like that she plays with a chip on her shoulder. She’s aggressive and extremely competitive. That is a dimension that we did not have a year ago so we are excited to see what that looks like as we head into the season. She’s played extremely well. Still trying to learn our style of play, obviously not everybody plays the same way we do–pressing and fast-paced–so she is still learning that but I think she has adapted well to it.
“She is better set to bang down low in the post, she’s physical, she likes contact, she can finish through contact. Love that she will go offensive rebound and finish. It gives us the inside presence that we really missed a year ago.”
Setting up all these post players will likely be the reigning SEC Sixth Woman of the Year, Chasity Patterson, who should start the season as the team’s de facto point guard and primary ball-handler alongside Rhyne Howard. If you want to point to a second Kentucky player with the potential to make an All-SEC Team at the season’s end, look no further than Patterson.
Chasity Patterson: 5-foot-5 (Sr.)
“We’ve talked to Chasity all summer about what her role looks like. So proud of Chasity for taking ownership of that role. She really worked this summer to understand the position and the responsibility that comes with it. As well as our plays and personnel and how she can not only create for herself but how she can make others around her better. She committed to really getting in shape, to play our style for a longer period of time, and offensively Chaz is very skilled as you all know and she’s playing even better offensively. But the thing that has impressed this staff the most is that she has taken a step forward defensively where she’s more intentional and playing harder than she did a year ago.“
Patterson was always incredibly sneaky as an on-ball defender, constantly pickpocketing opponents for easy transition layups, but was oftentimes undisciplined with how she went about swiping for those steals. The most notable knock against Patterson’s game a season ago was that she could sometimes get visibly confused with what was happening on offense, which could be explained by joining the team midway through last season after having to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules. A full offseason has put her in much better standing with what is expected of her, according to Elzy. That’s exactly what we want to hear.
Another player who has benefitted greatly from the extended offseason is a rising sophomore and another Kentucky native, Emma King. Elzy said that King’s leap from year one to year two has been credited to a dedicated work ethic.
Emma King: 5-foot-10 (So.)
“Emma King, hands down one of the hardest working basketball players that we have on our team. She is relentless in her work ethic. She comes in before practice, she comes in after practice, she is texting about feedback, she wants to watch film and her confidence is through the roof and exactly what she needed.She is shooting the ball well, but not only shooting, she’s putting the ball down and finishing. Her teammates have given her so much confidence as far as they believe in her offensively, and like Blair [Green], has let loose defensively, not playing so afraid to make mistakes and because of that she is moving herself right on up to the potential of being in the rotation once games start. Playing extremely well.”
But with all the hype surrounding the program and its improving upper-class players, Elzy warned that the first-year players–Leveretter, Treasure Hunt, and Erin Toller–could take some time to come along. They experienced a truncated offseason and are being “baptized by fire” as Elzy put it. Right now, it’s still a learning process for Hunt–the headliner recruit and a five-star prospect–and Toller, specifically.
Treasure Hunt: 6-foot-3 (Fr.)
“It’s been a slow start for Treasure [Hunt], the transition has been tough and it is for most freshmen. But the thing about Treasure, I think she has come on the last week or two. One, more confidence. But the thing that Treasure brings, she is unbelievably gifted offensively. She can stretch the floor, she can shoot the 3, there is nothing offensively that she’s not equipped with. Now the challenge for Treasure is learning the pace of the game on both sides of the floor. And the intensity with which you have to play. But talent wise, Treasure has all the tools to be successful and we will expect nothing less from her this season.
“She the ability to do that [make an impact on day one], now it is a transition for all freshmen. So were not going in saying Treasure has to be our end-all be-all as far as success. Out job is to push her, continue to encourage her, feed positivity to her, but we do expect Treasure to be an impact player for us this year.”
Erin Toller: 5-foot-7 (Fr.)
“Erin [Toller] is skilled offensively. She can shoot the ball, has a high basketball IQ. Love her competitive spirit. Still trying to find her way, figure it out as far as the pace and the intensity. The freshmen, we’ll talk to them after practice about what’s the difference and they’re like ‘practice is always hard, it’s so intense, everybody is so good!’ so just figuring it out. But Erin is going to be great for us, we have played her at the point, at the 2, but what she brings offensively we are very excited about. Continuing to challenge her to be able to play the pace that we play consistently. Be able to think while you’re tired, but thats for all of the freshmen, and really just getting her up to speed defensively.
“But to the freshmen’s defense, they are doing a phenomenal job without having a summer. They are really getting baptized by fire at rapid speed because normally some of the things that we could go over in a slower manner they missed over the summer. So when we hit the ground running, it was full steam ahead. To their defense, where they are right now they are probably ahead of schedule in the sense that they missed the whole summer. So I like where all the freshmen are. They will continue to get better, they will continue to get more confident, but right now, baptism by fire is what they are in. I tried to let them know that KeKe and Tot [Tatyana Wyatt] and Kameron Roach, they have been there and look how far they have come, so we will get them there.”
Speaking of Kameron Roach, it’s been close to two years since she’s seen in-game action, but Elzy said she’s healthy and ready to give it a go in her junior season.
Kameron Roach: 5-foot-6 (R-Jr.)
“Kameron is healthy and ready to go, we’re excited to have her back. Been proud of her leadership, extremely vocal on the floor. We have really challenged her to step up defensively, pick the ball up, lead us in defensive transition, bring the energy; she’s athletic. Kameron can play the 1 and the 2 so really challenge her offensively that if you’re on the floor, get us in a play, take open shots when you have it, and really try to create for others. Keep us steady.”
Moving along the roster, Elzy briefly spoke on the two transfers in waiting, Jazmine Massengill and Robyn Benton. If you didn’t see, Benton actually received her immediate eligibility waiver Tuesday night and will be available to play on opening day. As of the time of this post, Kentucky does not intend on having Massengill eligible, but that could always change.
Jazmine Massengill: 6-foot-0 (Jr.)/Robyn Benton: 5-foot-9 (Jr.)
“Robyn [Benton] and Jaz[mine Massengill], they have helped elevate our intensity in practice and our competitive spirit. Both of them are extremely athletic, both have sec experience, and they’re willingness to be coachable have really taken our program to the next level. Jaz is a 6-foot point guard, she’s big, she’s athletic, she can see the floor, she’s high basketball IQ. Robyn, she is competitive, she’s athletic, she can score and pays extremely hard defensively. So they just bring us another dimension of versatility on the perimeter.”
And finally, there is Rhyne Howard, who needs no introduction from her head coach. Howard is the reigning SEC Player of the Year and the preseason favorite to repeat this season. She finished second in the country in scoring a year ago and figures to average another 20-plus points per game once again. But even someone as naturally gifted as Howard has areas she needs to improve on. For her, however, those areas aren’t necessarily restricted to the court. I asked Elzy one thing that Howard has improved upon over the offseason. Her answer was telling of a player already too good for the level of basketball she currently plays at. She has the talent, but now she has to be a leader.
Rhyne Howard: 6-foot-2 (Jr.)
“Vocal leadership. Rhyne is extremely talented, she is gifted as a basketball player but really her first couple of years at Kentucky was able to just let her play do the talking for her, and we have really challenged her. Her voice matters. Her teammates love her, obviously, they respect her game and talent. Her basketball IQ is extremely high so when she does talk they do listen. But she just didn’t do it often enough. This year she has really come in, she has a chip on her shoulder, she is a woman on a mission. Obviously she wants to take her game to the next level and I am so proud that she is really challenging others around her to step up. One thing I love about this team and the staff, they are extremely competitive, they don’t want to lose any drills or competitions. We’ve had to switch the teams up several times just to make sure that everyone is having the opportunity to play with each other and each day is truly a joy because the competition levels are so high.
“She [Howard] has really come into her own, she has found her voice. She has always been very confident but never wanted to come off as overconfident. She is really humble but we have really tried to work with her to say it’s okay to be confident and you can still be humble but show the world what we see every day as far as your personality. She’s very witty, has a sense of humor, she has a big heart. So trying to show all aspects of her and why we love her not only as a basketball player but as a person. She has done really a phenomenal job of trying to show that this season.”
Elzy can go 11 deep if she wants to for the upcoming season. The talent level in Lexington has arguably never been deeper. With exactly one week until the season-opener against Murray State, we’re not far away from learning just how good this team can actually be.