Rhyne Howard had a historic season during her second year in Lexington. The sophomore basketball star claimed the title of SEC Player of the Year, earned AP All-American honors, was named to the All-SEC First Team, and found her name on the short list for nearly every other major individual award. Next year, she’ll look to take the jump from conference-level awards onto the national stage, as well as the leap from National Player of the Year candidate to National Player of the Year winner.
ESPN thinks she can do it.
In an article titled “Ranking the 10 best women’s college basketball players for 2020-21,” the world wide leader in sports places Kentucky’s own Rhyne Howard atop of that list. ESPNw writer Graham Hays calls Howard the early favorite since she “does so much well.” A quick look at her sophomore season makes his point.
Howard averaged 23.4 points per game last year, and she was a force of nature from almost everywhere on the floor. She can create her own shots, and she’s highly proficient from both the three-point line and free throw line. On the other side of the ball, she’s just as successful. Remember, Howard was placed on the SEC All-Defensive Team, after all.
Hays details the reasons why Howard is his pick for the National Player of the Year, and he includes this section about the moment Matthew Mitchell realized he had a very, very special player in his midst.
Howard wasn’t even supposed to be in Italy on that trip. Mitchell had assured the incoming freshman, competing at the time with USA Basketball in a tournament in Mexico, that she didn’t need to fly all the way to Europe to meet up with the Wildcats for the final few days of their tour. Howard wanted to go anyway. And neither jet lag nor fatigue from previous play prevented her from making an impression from the very first day she stepped on the court.
“She made everybody better that day,” Mitchell recalled. “I think that was the point where I was thinking this is a little different from being an all-SEC freshman team player. This is somebody who could really do something like [national] freshman of the year. That was a day I remember vividly. That was very impressive.”
Despite her talent level, there are reasons why Howard might not win the award next season, even if she continues to dominate. Hays reminds readers the top-tier award recipients “historically come from teams near the top of the polls,” and he wonders: “Is Howard so special that she can lift the Wildcats into the national championship discussion?”
The good news? Howard won’t be alone. Coach Mitchell and his team of assistants is finding great success on the recruiting trails these days, as the team will add Auburn guard Robyn Benton and Tennessee guard Jazmine Massengill as transfers, and the former five-star recruits could become eligible next season (depending on the NCAA decision outlined here).Either way, the Wildcats will add 5-star wing player Treasure Hunt.
If all of the pieces come together, Howard has a real chance at successfully making the jump and even sticking the landing.