When you score over 53 percent of your team’s points in one game – as Kentucky superstar sophomore Rhyne Howard did on Thursday night – it can be understandably difficult to look past her production. After all, she did tie a program record for most points in one game while also setting the record for most consecutive games with at least 25 points at five.
Howard is easily the most talented player on the Kentucky roster. She’s likely the best player in the SEC, as well, and probably the nation’s most complete scorer. Hell, she’s the best hooper – man or woman – playing basketball in Lexington at this very moment. Howard is as special a talent as they come and this is just the beginning of what is going to be a historic story for the Cleveland, TN native.
How many times throughout history has Kentucky women’s basketball been able to claim that they feature the best player in the entire country? What’s even crazier is that Howard is just a second-year guard.
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) January 10, 2020
Howard’s individual achievements aren’t going to stop at 43 points. Don’t be surprised if she pours in a 50-piece sometime this season if not next year. She currently leads the nation in overall scoring. But it’s not just her ability to shoot the ball that makes her special. Her defense is effortless with pinpoint accuracy. She reads passing lanes like an undetected thief in the backcourt. With KeKe McKinney on the sidelines against Alabama due to a serious migraine, Howard assumed the duties of defending taller players and did so with great discipline that lead to successful defense.
In no way is Howard just a shooter. She’s the furthest thing from a ball hog. Her talents extend to both ends of the court. She boasts a basketball IQ higher than anyone else she’ll face on the either side of the floor.
“We all either grew up around or knew about ball hogs. I was one when I played,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said on Friday. “I took a lot of bad shots. She [Howard] doesn’t come off as anything other than the flow of the offense. She is taking really good shots. She is even having the patience, when she is guarded, to change pace, split double teams, instead of taking a contested 19 footer. She’ll find a way to get in and maybe get a 12 footer with the extra effort. We were so patient last night when Alabama was trying to face guard and deny. We just kept moving the ball and then would find her late in the shot clock. So, it is. It’s impressive.”
Howard’s progression from her freshman year to now has been nothing short of spectacular. She went from taking a backseat to seniors Maci Morris and Taylor Murray to taking over both of their responsibilities. Just 12 months ago, Howard couldn’t even stay on the court long enough to play more than three second-half minutes in a tight road win over Tennessee. Foul trouble was her most glaring flaw through one season, but she adapted at an alarming rate.
Her basketball abilities will never be doubted by anyone. Howard’s status as a superstar has been cemented, now she needs to lead her team to the promised land.
Even if Howard pops off for 43 points in every game left this season, Kentucky won’t go far if they don’t receive a collective team effort as they did on Thursday night. There can be a lot of unenthusiastic pride-swallowing forced onto players who need to take a backseat when a rare talent such as Howard comes into the fold. It’s not easy to go from being the best player in high school to a designated role player in college. Kentucky basketball fans should know this better than any other fan base in the world.
But Matthew Mitchell is doing a fantastic coaching job to get his team playing as one cohesive unit with Howard as the gravitational hub. Every player has a role that they are expected to execute. Some are more difficult and important than others (Howard) while most consist of knocking down open looks or setting charges to save the defense’s lack of size.
Kentucky has the superstar necessary to earn a top-seed in the postseason, but more importantly, they have a quality group of ladies surrounding her that can push them deep into the tournament.
When everyone is doing their job, it makes Howard’s that much easier. And that’s exactly what we saw on Thursday night in Tuscaloosa.
“She is the focal point of a lot of teams’ preparations,” Mitchell continued. “She has really had to work hard to play well. I can’t stress this enough, what a team effort it takes for her to get a 43-point night. She had a lot of great screens set, a lot of great passes delivered, a lot of offensive rebounds that turned into second possessions where she’s able to score. You just saw, it was a beautiful thing to see.”
Five players not named Rhyne Howard knocked down a three for Kentucky agaisnt ‘Bama; Sabrina Haines, Blair Green, Tatyana Wyatt, Amanda Paschal, and Chasity Patterson combined to shoot 9-21 from beyond the arc.
Paschal added 10 points in just the second quarter, taking some scoring pressure off Howard for a brief moment. Green did the same thing with seven points in the third quarter while also dishing out a career-high of five dimes throughout the game. Haines has had a knack this season for hitting shots when the ‘Cats need them the most. Kentucky didn’t even have it’s top overall defender in McKinney and still held the Crimson Tide to just 71 points on a 4-13 clip from deep.
Howard is going to earn the majority of the praise for the success this team endures (same goes for any failures), but her teammates appear to be just fine with that. They know that the final goal is better than themselves.
“It’s not a singular effort and the team was so excited to see it and to be a part of it,” Mitchell said. “We were on the bus last night after the game, and the bus driver had the TV on, and they were showing the highlights. Just the excitement on the bus of everyone really made me feel good. It was a special time. So, it was a great individual performance from a statistical standpoint, but it definitely was an overall team effort.”
What’s really going to test Howard and the Wildcats going forward is how they handle any future double teams.
As Howard’s notoriety continues to grow and her stat lines continue to break the Internet, the focus from opposing defenses will grow with it. SEC coaches are going to spend several sleepless nights trying to develop game plans on how to slow her down. Howard has yet to face a team that takes the approach of making someone else beat them.
When Howard is in a groove like she was on Thursday (or any time over the last three weeks, really), it doesn’t make sense to plant one ill-prepared defender on her. She’s tall enough to shoot over shorter players and skilled enough to dust anyone she can’t get a shot off over. There will be a team that does everything they can to force the ball out of her hands, which could lead to some initially frustrating results for everyone involved.
Howard has shown the ability to adapt to what teams throw at her. Tennessee deployed an extended zone that at first broke Kentucky down before the ‘Cats figured out how to exploit it in the second half. What’s going to happen when Howard has two defenders on her even when she doesn’t have the ball?
Relying on Howard to average 30 points for the rest of the season is probably a solid bet. She is legitimately the most talented female basketball player in the college field. If anyone can overcome a flurry of various defenses, it would be Howard. But there is going to be a game where Haines or Patterson or Jaida Roper are going to have to control the offense.
While all three of those players possess that capability and have proven they can do so, it’s not something they expect to do every game. Howard played 39 minutes against ‘Bama. Whenever she’s in, she’s the main focus. Howard can hit most of the big shots, but she can’t hit them all.
Howard plays at her own pace. She sets the tone and others follow. It’s almost impossible to speed her up too fast. That won’t change when she faces double teams. She will still dictate how Kentucky runs its offense.
It took a total team effort to boost Howard into a career night on Thursday and it’ll take a team effort for the ‘Cats to maintain their current status throughout the remainder of SEC play. A quick turnaround awaits them with another road game agaisnt Florida at noon on Sunday. A top-10 Texas A&M team comes to Memorial Colisuem next week. The fun is only starting for Howard and the ‘Cats.