There are going to be plenty of new faces that will take the floor in Memorial Coliseum next season – whenever that may be.
Of course, Rhyne Howard will be back. Tatyana Wyatt and KeKe McKinney will provide experienced, veteran leadership while Chasity Patterson assumes the starting point guard spot. But with five seniors graduating, three incoming freshmen, a couple of players recovering from injury, and two transfers that could possibly play right away, the roster turnover for Matthew Mitchell is going to be severe. But, in turn, it’s going to provide opportunities for players that never had the chance a season ago.
Here are three different ladies that could break out for next season’s UK Hoops squad, stating with a Kentuckian.
The development of rising junior guard Blair Green might be the most important for the incoming offseason. After an impressive freshman season saw her shine in limited minutes, the native of Harlan County didn’t see too much improvement in year two.
Her scoring went up a tick (from 5.3 ppg to 5.8 ppg), but she never bloomed into a larger role. Green’s shooting numbers dipped significantly from her freshman to sophomore season (both her overall field goal and three-point percentage fell five points), although she was clearly more comfortable with the ball in her hands this past year. Even though her shooting percentages were down, her confidence never appeared to wane, a good sign going into the future. She attempted 26 more 3-pointers in her second season along with 12 more shots from the free-throw line despite playing fewer total minutes than her first season.
Green’s best stretch of the year unsurprisingly came when she was interested in the starting lineup right at the beginning of the SEC schedule. She was a full-time starter for seven straight games (two of them during the absence of Howard as she dealt with a broken pinky). In those seven games, Green averaged over 26 minutes per game while the ‘Cats went 5-2 during that span, including a win over a ranked Texas A&M team (who were without their star player, Chennedy Carter). The bad news is she shot just 28.8 percent from the floor in those outings. By the end of the SEC schedule, her head coach had pulled most of her minutes; in the final eight games of the season, Green hit the 20-minute mark just once.
Mitchell’s confidence in Green’s abilities was a rollercoaster throughout the season. She came out of the gate back in the fall regularly playing more than 20 minutes. But as the season went on and the opponents improved, her playing time dwindled.
Consider this: Green played an average of 10.5 minutes per game against the likes of Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Arkansas, and Louisville. Those were the five best teams Kentucky played this past season, and in all eight games – outside of the second matchup against UT – Green was a nonfactor.
Rhyne Howard – who is one of Green’s best friends – said before the 2019-20 season began that she thought Green would improve the most amongst her teammates after what they accomplished over that summer. To Green’s credit, whenever she played more than 25 minutes last season, she was typically productive. Part of the issue was it felt like Matthew Mitchell couldn’t trust her to knock down open shots consistently. Green shot 1-17 combined in two games against Florida and was 2-8 against Auburn – two SEC schools that finished in the bottom half of the conference standings. He gave her a leash to shoot, but the shots just didn’t fall.
Green said she went back to playing more of a guard position in her sophomore season, and the adjustment of playing alongside five other guards who could handle the ball better than her was probably a challenge. She’s a clean 6-feet tall but isn’t exactly a dependable rebounder. Her lethal 3-point shot is what makes her so valuable and a more open perimeter next season will definitely benefit her.
UK is losing a good chunk of its outside scoring in the backcourt and someone has to help fill that void. If it’s Green, she only makes Kentucky more versatile on offense. Defense was never her calling card through her first two seasons, however, she improved dramatically on that side of the floor by the season’s end. If she can become a push on defense and hit 38 percent of her shots from beyond the arc, the team’s ceiling skyrockets. It’s damn-near impossible to guard a team with five shooters and a couple of penetrators.
The next two players we’re going to discuss, starting with rising sophomore Deasia Merrill, are in a different situation than Green. Both are coming off of significant knee injuries and missed all of last season because of it. But both of them also play the forward position and are over 6-foot-1; Kentucky is going to need their size to battle down low next year.
Merrill was a four-star prospect when she arrived in Lexington a summer ago and ESPN ranked her as the 66th best player in her class. She’s another versatile big that Mitchell has become fond over the last few seasons (as opposed to overwhelming height) and she plays a style that fits how he wants his team to play. Merrill can run the fastbreak and has impressive vision for someone who plays her position. Pushing the ball in transition is one of her specialties and Kentucky specializes in that area off of forced turnovers.
Her ability to knock down outside shots in high school draws comparisons to a current version of KeKe McKinney, who can also spread the floor, run the fastbreak, and properly read defenses. Merrill’s averages during her senior season in Georgia were mind-melting; 25.6 points, 15.4 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 4.2 blocks, and 5.2 steals PER GAME on her way to being named the Georgia Class 5A Player of the Year.
Coming off a knee issue is never easy, although we’re seeing more and more athletes fully recover from these types of devastating injuries. Merrill will have plenty of time to get back into game shape with a fully healed knee by the time the new season begins. And if she’s going to be one of Kentucky’s “tall” bodies in the paint, she needs to be ready to battle on the glass; that is where she’ll earn her playing time. McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt can shoot from deep, but they aren’t high-level rebounders. If Merrill can bring both rebounding and floor spacing to the floor, Mitchell will be forced to insert her.
Much like Merrill, rising junior Dre’una Edwards is coming off an ACL injury that sidelined her for over a year. Although, Edwards wouldn’t have been able to play last season anyway, as she had to obey NCAA transfer rules. The 6-foot-2 native of Las Vegas initially started her career at the University of Utah where she was an early standout as a freshman. Actually, she was better than just a “standout”, Edwards was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in the 2018-19 season.
During her lone season with the Utes, Edwards started 26 games while posting 11.6 points and 6.7 boards per outing. She regularly scored in double-figures and even hit the 20-point threshold on two separate occasions. Just to give you a sense of the competition in the Pac-12 from that season, six programs from that conference made the NCAA Tournament that season (and Utah was not one of them). She wasn’t going up against mid-majors, Edwards was balling out against one of the three most talented conferences in women’s college basketball. Her team went 20-10 that season as she led them in field goal percentage at over 54 percent overall.
Unlike Merrill, Edwards hasn’t shown she can be an outside shooting threat. It’s possible she’s since added that to her game, but as of right now, her strength is being able to score in the paint with consistency, even if she’s oversized. Edwards’ average of 6.7 rebounds came in under 23 minutes per game. According to Her Hoop Stats, she was one of the most effective rebounders in the COUNTRY as a freshman – ranking in the top-10 percentile. She brings intangibles to the table that Kentucky simply doesn’t have on their roster. Edwards can drag an entire defense into the paint and still muscle up a good shot. UK didn’t have that a season ago.
Of course, the ACL injury cannot be ignored, and returning to full health is going to be of the utmost importance for a smooth transition. Of the three players on the list, Edwards has already proven to be a starting-caliber player. Her prior knee injury adds a question mark and the depth of next season’s roster could make her the odd woman out, but if she gets a chance, she’ll know exactly what to do with it.