The Kentucky women’s basketball team fell in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament, losing to the host and three-seeded, N.C. State Wolfpack. It capped off what will go down as one of head coach Matthew Mitchell’s most impressive years at the helm. The season as a whole was unexpected and inspiring, as the ladies finished fourth – despite being predicted to finish seventh – in the SEC with an 11-5 record and an overall record of 25-8.
After a disappointing season in 2017-18, when the Wildcats missed the NCAA tourney and finished with Mitchell’s worst record as head coach of Kentucky at 15-17, things weren’t expected to get too much better. Even though this year’s version didn’t make it to the Sweet 16, it might have been his season yet, and the future now looks brighter than anyone could have imagined just 10 months ago.
Losing seniors Maci Morris and Taylor Murray is huge, make no doubt of that. Morris is one of the best players to ever wear a Kentucky uniform, finishing sixth all-time in points (1,692) and second in made threes (252). Her final season as a Cat resulted in her shooting over 45 percent from deep, the sixth highest mark in the entire country. Murray, meanwhile, is one of the two or three best on-ball defenders I have ever seen in the blue and white, man or woman, and was the prime initiator on offense as a senior.
The absence of those two will be impossible to notice, but it’s the players coming back and rolling in that are going fill the potential of next season with flirtatious talks of a fourth Elite 8 appearance for the Cats under Coach Mitchell.
Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Kentucky saw eight players transfer and five commits move on to different schools in the span of two years. Last season was an admitted disaster. Now, there’s reason to believe the best days of UK Hoops could still be ahead of us.
So what will the 2019-20 version of the Wildcats look like? Well, let’s take a peek.
Sophomore season Rhyne Howard
If for some reason you have never heard the name of Rhyne Howard yet, familiarize yourself as soon as possible. She is a superstar in the making. Actually, she is a superstar. Already made.
The progress she showed in her development throughout her freshman season was unprecedented for a Kentucky player but not unexpected. The only time we’ve seen a player improve so much from the beginning to the end of a season is when John Calipari is in charge.
In her first season, Howard averaged a team-high in both points (16.4) and rebounds (6.6) per game and trailed only Murray in total steals. She can get it done on both ends; scoring from all areas of the court with deathly crossover and stepback moves combined with cat-like reflexes on defense ranging from swiping away loose balls to pulling up for charges in a split second.
One of my favorite stats about Howard this past season was how she led the Cats in both Usage Rate (26.9) and Effective Field Goal Percentage (53.3). She’s a player you want to have with the ball in her hands late in a game. Her 191 three-point attempts were a team-high, converting on nearly 39 percent of them.
At 6-foot-2, she can shoot over almost anyone and plays more like an oversized guard than an undersized forward. But don’t underestimate her rebounding abilities. She was especially good at pulling in boards off her own teammates misses – she averaged 2.5 offensive rebounds per game, putting her in the top 10 percent among all players in the country.
The only thing Howard truly needs to improve upon is her decision making. While her assist percentage (16.9) was higher than her turnover percentage (14.1), her assist/turnover ratio was under 1.00 – 0.93 to be exact. She also forced herself out of several games by picking up petty fouls early in the first and second quarters. Silly freshman mistakes, more often than not. But still the overwhelming pick for National Freshman of the Year. She’s an elite prospect.
Without Murray to lead the way, Howard could find herself handling the ball even more often than this season and the turnovers could spike as a result. But that also brings me to my next point, which is – no pun intended – the addition of a point guard who transferred from Texas.
Three transfers now eligible to play
Starting with Chasity Patterson, the prized transfer Matthew Mitchell was able to pull a commitment from back in December. Patterson was the top-ranked point guard in the class of 2017 before committing to Texas. She was listed as the Big 12 Preseason Freshman of the Year, but averaged only 7.6 minutes in her lone year as a Longhorn, leading to her wanting to transfer.
She was listed as the fourth-best overall player in her class and named a McDonald’s All-American while also winning the 3-point shooting contest at the event. Patterson is her high school’s all-time leading scorer with over 3,000 career points and she averaged 28.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game as a senior in the Houston area. The stats and awards are all there, but she’ll be coming off a year-long hiatus from organized basketball. She’ll have to sit out until the spring semester but is expected to come in and be an explosive ball-dominant guard who can lead the offense and take over a similar role to Murray on both ends of the court.
Sabrina Haines is an Arizona State transfer listed at 5-foot-10 who is an excellent sharpshooter. She led the Sun Devils in three-point shooting and free-throw percentage her sophomore season while starting 32 games. She isn’t anywhere near the shooter that Morris is, but making over 38 percent of her three-pointers as a second-year player at ASU on 75 attempts is a major boost.
Haines missed the majority of her junior season with an injury, ultimately leading to transfer.
The final transfer is out of N.C. State. Nae Nae Cole, a 6-foot-3 center spent three years with the Wolfpack before deciding to head to Lexington. Her stats don’t stick out, but she’ll immediately come in as the tallest player on the roster at 6-foot-3, something the Wildcats desperately lacked this past year. She was a four-star recruit coming out of high school.
Coach Mitchell will add two freshmen to next year’s roster; four-star recruit out of Georgia, Deasia Merrill, and three-star recruit from Lincoln County, KY, Emma King.
Merrill is a 6-foot-2 forward listed as the 66th best recruit in ESPN’s rankings, providing even more frontcourt size and depth. What excites coach Mitchell about her the most is that she can stretch the floor and force the defense to respect her jump shot.
“Deasia brings so many different things to our team with her ability to really stretch the floor,” coach Mitchell said. “She can score so many ways, including out on the perimeter, but can also go inside and be physical and finish. She’s going to be a real asset for our team for years to come.”
We saw KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt try to extend their range out to the perimeter, although with mixed results. Wyatt’s confidence in her jumper improved as the season progressed and she became a much more versatile player on offense because of it. Adding another player that can bend the defense and put them in defending positions they aren’t used to is insanely valuable. Kentucky likes to run and shoot; Merrill should fit perfectly into the formula.
As for King, she’s been a Kentucky commit since before her junior season even began. She’s been a fan of the blue and white for even longer and brings another shooter into the fold. She’s 5-foot-11, which is good size for a guard who likes to get off shots quick and around screens.
Coach Mitchell calls her a “terrific shooter” with “incredible range” but it might be a while before she sees real minutes, depending on just how terrific of a shooter she actually is. The backcourt depth next season won’t be much of a problem with four potential ball handlers along with Blair Green’s outside shooting.
Returning players – guards
Jaida Roper and Amanda Paschal – the two juniors entering their final season at Kentucky – will be a staple of the Wildcats backcourt. They might actually be the most important aspect of next year’s team, essentially replacing Morris and Murray.
Howard and Patterson will likely receive most of the primary ball-handling duties, but Roper and Paschal have shown that they are more than capable of taking over that duty themselves.
They were usually the first two players off the bench and Roper acted more like a “sixth-starter” towards the end of the season. I’m especially excited to see how much better Roper can get after a full offseason. She isn’t the pest that Murray is on defense, but on offense, she can run with anyone. She was second on the team in assists behind Murray and played with more passion and intensity than any other player.
She’s only 5-foot-6 but plays like you just insulted her entire family. There is a locked aggression inside of her every game that she is just looking for an excuse to break out. She shot nearly 35 percent from three with her now iconic rainbow jumper and is a threat to sneak into the paint for saucy assists. If she spies an opportunity to add some “Roper-flair”, she’s going to do it. Most importantly, she’s going to do it without turning the ball over.
Paschal’s role this past season wasn’t as necessary as Roper’s, but with the loss of Murray and Morris, she’s still going to see plenty of minutes. Her playing time dipped in the middle of last season but spiked again down the stretch when the team needed experienced players who can reliably hold the ball and initiate the offense.
She can be a bit reckless driving to the rim at times, as evidenced by her 30.1 field goal percentage as a junior, and needs to improve upon her timing when attacking the paint, but it’s clear she can get there when she wants. Some of it has to do with her being somewhat undersized at 5-foot-7 and attacking players in the paint well over 6-feet tall. But what’s important to note is that she can get to the rim. It’s going to be about picking and choosing her spots correctly and better adapting to making those last second passes when she realizes that she can’t get a clean look off. With the bevy of shooters that will surround her, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Returning players – forwards
Let’s start with the two starters from last season – Wyatt and McKinney.
Both will enter next season as juniors, which is a big deal in its own right because having these two for another two seasons is massive to solidifying the frontcourt.
Yes, the rebounding issues might still persist, but we saw towards the end of the season just how much Wyatt has improved and they both want to be able to knock down that outside shot.
Between the two, they attempted 87 triples, but made only 20 of them, slightly under 23 percent. You don’t have to be a math wizard to know that is a poor shooting clip. Any improvement from that area would create a situation where Kentucky can almost always have five shooters on the floor at all time. That is how you build a modern-style basketball team.
But what Wyatt does so well is compete with opposing bigs. She’s usually not the tallest at 6-foot-2, but hardly gets outworked. She ranked well above average in securing offensive rebounds and became much more adept at scoring in the post as the season progressed. Being an incredibly hard worker doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet but she’s one of Kentucky’s most important players going forward. Outside of Howard and *maybe* Patterson, she might be the most important player
She’ll be guarding the tallest player on the opposing team and will usually have a height disadvantage. If she can get better at not fouling in those situations (she was one of the worst in the entire country in terms of foul percentage) and stay in the game for longer stints, her impact will be felt all 40 minutes.
McKinney missed some time with an injury near the end of the season and she didn’t look 100 percent once she did return in the NCAA Tournament but make no mistake, she’ll be starting once again in 2019.
She’s the teams best rebounder not named Rhyne Howard and quick on her feet at 6-foot-1. Like Wyatt, she is constantly battling on the boards and pulling down her teammates misses for extra opportunities.
Backing up those two will once again be Blair Green and Ogechi Anyagaligbo. Green should see plenty of improvements after her first season playing in college, starting with simply being more comfortable on the floor. Too often did she just look out of place when she wasn’t spotting up for shots – although, she is a hell of a shooter (making over 36 percent on 44 attempts from three). The experience is what matters most for her. She’s going to be a big-time player at Kentucky, but it’s going to be up to her if that comes next season or a couple of years from now.
As for Anyagaligbo, she’ll join Roper and Paschal along with transfers Haines and Cole as the fifth senior on the roster. Anyagaligbo saw her playing time stabilize to roughly 10-15 minutes per game over the last several weeks of the season and she performed well. She has an issue similar to Paschal in that when she sets her mind on shooting, that’s exactly what she’s going to do no matter what happens. At 6-foot-1 she can muscle through most, but still isn’t tall enough to get off tough looks in the paint. If she’s spotting up for 6-to-8 foot jumpers she’ll knock them down nine times out of 10, but it’s getting to those spots that she didn’t too all that often.
The frontcourt is going to go about five (and possibly six) players deep, so playing time could be a bit harder to come by with Green, Anyagailgobo, and the transfer Cole all fighting for backup minutes. A good problem to have for a head coach.
All-in-all, next year’s team should be an improvement on the 2018 version, despite losing two legends in Morris and Murray. The depth improves, there is more size, plenty of experience, efficient shooters at every position, and a young superstar to make it all work. The hype should be unlike anything UK Hoops has seen since before the mass exodus of players a few years ago.