After decades of domination by Pat Summitt and Tennessee, the SEC’s newest juggernaut is led by another Hall of Fame Basketball coach. And just as Kentucky struggled to beat those Volunteer teams throughout all those years, they now struggle to do the same against Dawn Staley and the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell has assembled arguably his most talented roster since his arrival back in 2007, led by reigning SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard and supported by five fellow upper-class players, a duo of impact redshirt sophomores, and a highly-touted incoming recruiting class. Mitchell famously made three Elite 8 appearances during a brilliant stretch from 2009-13 but never had a squad capable enough to get over that hump. More often than not, it was Tennessee that prevented Kentucky from achieving its ultimate dreams of a Final Four.
During the 2010 and 2011 SEC Tournaments, Tennessee beat Kentucky in the Championship game both times before their respective runs in the NCAA Tournament. UT did the same thing in 2014, taking down UK in the SEC Championship game by the narrow margin of 71-70. From the 2009 season through the 2014 season, Kentucky went 3-7 against the Lady Vols, three of those losses coming during the final round of the conference tournament.
About a half-decade later, a new challenger has overtaken the Lady Vols: South Carolina continues to wreak havoc on the SEC and is the latest program to keep the ‘Cats from making the final leap to being recognized as an elite team.
The Gamecocks have won the SEC Tournament five times out of the last six seasons, including a 76-62 victory over Mississippi State in 2020. Carolina knocked Kentucky out of the semifinals of the 2016 SEC Tournament and again the following year in 2017. Since the Gamecocks’ reign of terror began ahead of the 2015-16 season, Kentucky has posted a 2-12 record against coach Staley and USC. Last season the ‘Cats were dismantled on two separate occasions, losing by a combined 36 points against Carolina. Heading into the 2020-21 season, South Carolina figures to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country and overwhelming favorite to win the SEC.
For my money, South Carolina is the new Tennessee and the team holding Kentucky back from finding its true ceiling. But for the first time since the early 2010s, it feels like the ‘Cats have a real shot at beating the final boss.
Had there been an NCAA Tournament back in March, South Carolina would have been entered as the overwhelming favorite against a talented field. After easily clearing through the SEC Tournament, they held an impressive 32-1 overall record as the consensus top team in the country. Heading into the upcoming season, only two seniors from a year ago have left Columbia and the majority of its production will come from familiar faces.
6-foot-5 center Aliyah Boston headlines Carolina as the reigning National Freshman of the Year while two fellow rising sophomores, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, will look to improve upon their impressive first-year runs. Add in four juniors and a senior who have all proven they can produce, along with a top-ranked incoming high school player, and it adds up to most outlets tabbing them as the nation’s preseason No. 1.
But they aren’t all that different from the ‘Cats. From the outside looking in, Kentucky actually matches up quite nicely with South Carolina, especially compared to past seasons. Boston will battle with Howard for the title of SEC–or even National–Player of the Year as the conference’s two premier stars. The size disadvantage has vanished. The talent level from top-to-bottom mirrors each other.
Let’s take a closer look.
The most glaring issue staring Matthew Mitchell and his program directly in the face over the last couple of years has been the lack of an inside presence. Kentucky has found ways to thrive playing through an undersized gameplan despite that, using speed and quickness to force constant turnovers and jump ahead of slower teams. To make up for inside deficiencies, they took advantage of the analytics boom and steered its offense towards the perimeter (there weren’t many teams in the entire nation that fired up more outside shots than the ‘Cats the last two seasons).
The results were mostly positive, but it was obvious that Kentucky could only do so much against the likes of the South Carolinas of the world. The Gamecocks rolled out five rotational players who all stood over 6-foot-2 a season ago, compared to just three for Kentucky. Boston held down the middle while lengthy athletes such as Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan (6-foot-2) and Laeticia Amihere (6-foot-4) hawked the paint AND perimeter. LeLe Grissett and Victaria Saxton were another pair of 6-foot-2 players who could play multiple positions. With Herbert-Harrigan having graduated, South Carolina isn’t as intimidating inside. However, it’s the additions to Kentucky’s end of the bench that make the competition fairer.
UK will add three players to its roster who are at least 6-foot-2 that did not play a season ago: Olivia Owens (6-foot-4), Nyah Leveretter (6-foot-3), and Dre’Una Edwards (6-foot-2). Owens comes in as a redshirt sophomore after transferring from Maryland, Leveretter is a rising four-star rookie with an athletic and lengthy frame, while Edwards will step back on the court for the first time since being named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year when she was at Utah. These three bring invaluable skills to the table that Kentucky has not had the benefit of in the past. Mitchell might have lost three key senior guards from last year’s team, but he added more than enough size to counteract that.
Losing Jaida Roper, Amanda Paschal, and Sabrina Haines to graduation is no small wound. Replacing three of last season’s top five ball handlers will come with some growing pains. Howard will still control the offense while reigning SEC Sixth Woman of the Year Chasity Patterson will help aid her in that department. And depending on how skilled first-year player Treasure Hunt is with the ball in her hands–which is supposedly pretty skilled–she could even look to relieve some of that pressure. If Erin Toller and Kameron Roach can come off the bench to help soak up some of those ball-handling minutes, it only patches the loss of Roper, Paschal, and Haines even more.
In essence, Kentucky has traded speed and quickness for size and rebounding. And after watching Boston terrorize the undersized Kentucky frontline a season ago, it was a necessary swap. She was an automatic bucket whenever she got within 10 feet of the basket, dropping 14 points on 5-7 shooting in the first meeting against UK in 2019-20, mostly in the first half, before coasting to a 27-point win. Credit is due to players such as KeKe McKinney, Tatyana Wyatt, and the recently graduated Ogechi Anyagaligbo for their efforts against her and the rest of the SC frontcourt, but they all struggled to battle amongst the trees on the block. Here’s the only stat from those two meetings a year ago that you need to know: Kentucky was outscored in the paint by a combined total of 98-38; a FIFTY point differential. McKinney and Wyatt will once again hold down the backline as seniors this season, but they are more suited at defending quicker players as opposed to taller ones. The addition of Owens, in particular, helps mask this issue and puts a more favorable matchup on Boston.
If we want to point to another issue that has plagued Kentucky against South Carolina, the easiest culprit would be the Gamecocks’ defense on Rhyne Howard. The rising junior averaged 26 points between the two outings a year ago but shot just a combined 13-39 (33.3 percent) from the field. In the second meeting, Coach Staley employed a box-and-one defense against Howard, forcing her into tight situations with the ball and making her teammates pick up the slack. Unfortunately, that never happened. Not a single one of her teammates scored in double-digits during that second game. Patterson added 15 points in the first meeting but was nonexistent in the following outing.
Going into the new year, Kentucky needs a reliable second scorer and a decently reliable third one. Can Patterson be the person to fill in that void as second-fiddle to Howard, or will someone such as Hunt or Edwards assume that position? Patterson is the likely candidate and one who has shown on the big stage that she can contribute. It doesn’t matter who it is, but it has to be someone. South Carolina had four players average over 12 points per game last year; only Howard did so for the ‘Cats. The offense has to be more spread out to keep up with a team like South Carolina who can have a different player beat you on any given night. Until Kentucky can reach that level, they won’t be able to overtake the Gamecocks.
But if there were a year to flip the script, this would be it. Kentucky will be listed right behind USC as the second or third best team in the SEC from the jump and one of the main threats to steal the SEC Tournament trophy from the Gamecocks. In order to make a Final Four, you have to win games you typically haven’t; that starts with taking down the best team in the conference.