Just one game into her collegiate career, you could tell there was something different about Rhyne Howard – something special.
The native of Cleveland, TN posted a modest 15 points in her freshman debut back in November of 2018 against Alabama State, adding six rebounds, three assists, three blocks, and two steals to her stat line while shooting 5-11 from the floor. One game later – just her second as a college freshman – Howard poured in 29 points against Southern University. Even at 18 years old, Howard was dominating the college scene from the opening tip. She was expected to contribute early, but fans didn’t expect it to be at such a high degree. These were the furthest things from fluke performances, too.
At 6-foot-2, Howard has the skills and a physical body that model all-time greats such as Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker. She can score at all three levels with range that extends well beyond the three-point line thanks to her unguardable jump shot. Her strength attacking the basket combined with an ability to finish through contact resulted in tough circus shots becoming commonplace. Her feet move with the swiftness of a 5-foot-6 guard; no one can stay in front of her when she has the ball in her hands and no one can get past her on the other end. Her basketball IQ is off the charts. Howard is the ideal makeup of what coaches want in a superstar basketball player.
There are few – if any – flaws in how she plays basketball. She waltzes through the game with such a relaxed feel that almost makes it look too easy for her.
Check out @howard_rhyne putting up 2?4?.
— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) March 7, 2020
As a sophomore, Howard lived up the hype that was placed upon her in the preseason. She finished second in the voting for preseason SEC Player of the Year and found herself on several preseason award watch lists. Yet somehow, she vastly exceeded even the loftiest expectations.
In her second season as a Wildcat, Howard averaged 23.4 points per game, second in the entire nation behind Rider’s Stella Johnson (24.8 ppg). She also led Kentucky in rebounding at 6.5 per game while setting a new single-season program record for most made-triples in one year with 84. At one point during her campaign, Howard scored at least 25 points in five consecutive games (the first time in school history) along with eight straight outings of at least 20 points (second time in school history). 18 of her final 19 games from this past season saw her reach the 20-point mark. There were only six games all season that saw her fail to reach 20 points, three of them coming in the first four outings to start the year. A fourth came in a win over Auburn, the night she fractured her pinky.
Even with a “rough” first few games (she still averaged 15 points per game through the first four), Howard completed (well, sort of…) what was one of the best individual seasons in Kentucky women’s basketball history.
Howard was named the 2020 SEC Player of the Year and the decision wasn’t even close. She was an easy choice for both the All-SEC First Team AND the All-SEC Defensive Team. Her recognition as a First-Team AP All-American was the first in program history. On Friday, Howard continued her excellent season by being named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy – given to the country’s most outstanding player.
Even though she won’t get the chance to see what the final result of her second college season will look like, we have more than enough evidence to conclude Howard’s rank as one of the all-time greats. Her sophomore season will go down as one of the two or three best in Kentucky history.
But how does Howard’s 2019-20 season stack up against the likes of Valerie Still (1979-83), A’dia Mathies (2009-13), and Victoria Dunlap (2007-11) – arguably the three best women to ever play basketball for the Wildcats?
It feels safe to say that it’ll be a while before we see anything as impressive as what Still did during her time in Lexington – even if Howard tears it up in her final two seasons. Still is the only female Wildcat to have her jersey retired as the No. 12 hangs up high in Memorial Coliseum. She averaged over 20 points and over 10 rebounds in all four of her seasons and was a three-time consensus All-American. Even though she graduated nearly 40 years ago, Still continues to hold the program record (male OR female) for most career points (2,763) and rebounds (1,525). She was the star player of the only UK Hoops team that reached a national ranking of No. 4.
Still shot nearly 58 percent from the floor in 119 career games. That is insanity. She is undeniably Kentucky women’s basketball’s all-time GOAT.
Yet even still, Howard has a case to challenge her. If Still is the GOAT, Howard is the GOAT-in-training. It’s hard to compare a 40-year differential, considering the game itself has evolved and developed in such expansive ways. Still was one of the most imposing female basketball players of the early 1980s and Howard is projecting to be just that for the early 2020s.
When we compare Howard’s sophomore season to more recent superstars to play under head coach Matthew Mitchell like Dunlap and Mathies, you could argue the current ‘Cat still comes out on top.
Dunlap’s senior season saw her average 17.0 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the floor, 41.7 percent from three, and 70.4 percent from the free-throw line. She also registered 3.0 steals and 1.5 blocks per game across her final season while winning two SEC Player of the Year awards over her career.
Mathies’ senior season saw her average 16.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.9 steals on shooting splits of 42.5/42.2/75.4. She might hold the title as “most successful” Wildcat, as she led Kentucky to three Elite Eights and a Sweet 16 in her four seasons. She is also a member of the 2,000 point club while winning SEC Player of the Year as both a junior and senior.
However, as a sophomore, Howard scored more points in fewer games than either Mathies or Dunlap did as seniors. Howard’s 633 points (most ever by a Kentucky sophomore) in 27 games during her second season were more than the senior seasons of Mathies (579 points in 36 games) and Dunlap (562 in 33 games). Dunlap did record 633 points as a junior but needed 35 games to reach that mark.
Twice in the 2019-20 season did Howard join elite company in the scoring column, posting two of the 12 single-highest scoring games in Kentucky history; 37 points against Tennessee in early January and a program-tying record of 43 against Alabama just one game later. Her reign of terror only got worse for the opposition as the season progressed. Sitting out three games with a fractured pinky didn’t appear to slow her down – not even a bulky cast to protect the hand could prevent her from scoring points in bunches. In the eight games she played with the cast on her non-shooting hand, Howard averaged 24.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
It’s her ability to “turn it on” at a moment’s notice that allows her to showcase her wide-ranging skills. Last season, she had the benefit of playing next to other gifted scorers such as seniors Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. This season, it was no secret who Kentucky’s best player was. The incredible part was she still couldn’t be stopped, especially when the lights were the brightest.
In two meetings against the No. 1 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks, Howard dropped 28 points in the first matchup and 24 in the second. She scored 26 points in both meetings against the top-10 ranked Mississippi State Bulldogs and another 26 points against top-10 ranked Louisville inside Rupp Arena. Her second career go-ahead game-winning shot came on the road against the Cal Golden Bears (when she finished with 29 points). The big moment against big teams did not phase Howard. She is a walking cheat code and an automatic unfair advantage.
CALL TO ACTION. ??????
First up, watch this game-winning shot by @howard_rhyne. ?
Second, vote Rhyne Howard for these TWO huge honors every single day!!!
— Kentucky WBB (@KentuckyWBB) March 20, 2020
Unfortunately, Howard’s sophomore season will always have an asterisk next to it, as the coronavirus canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournaments, but that will never take away what she accomplished. Her junior year should be even MORE exciting and Kentucky will once again fight amongst the SEC’s elite programs. While we mourn the loss of the 2019-20 postseason, we should also appreciate the greatness that we were blessed enough to witness.