For over three decades, women’s college basketball has traditionally been dominated by a top-heavy group of elite programs.
The UConns, Tennessees, Stanfords, Baylors, and Notre Dames of the sport have continually tightened its vice grip on the championship trophies. The final three on that shortlist of schools hold a collective seven NCAA Championships. The first two combine for an astounding 19 of them. Since the first college was crowned with the introductory NCAA Championship back in 1982, those five schools have accounted for 26 out of the 38 possible National Championships.
As it currently stands in the 2019-20 rankings, only the Fighting Irish are not within the top-25 teams in the country of those five schools. Stanford sits at No. 1 overall with UConn and Baylor floating in the top-10, as well. The Volunteers – after a brief fall from grace – find themselves back in the discussion ranked at No. 17.
Stanford, UConn, and Baylor are all expected to fight for a National Title this coming March.
Which raises the question: Just how hard is it for non-traditional powerhouse schools to win it all in the women’s game?
This season’s version of the Kentucky Wildcats has a chance to truly find out the answer to that question.
Kentucky might be stranger to Final Fours, but head coach Matthew Mitchell is no stranger to deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. Since taking over at the helm in 2007, he has guided the Wildcats to 11 postseason tournaments. His best stretch of success came from 2009-2013 where UK made it to three Elite 8 games in four seasons. There was an extended period during that time when Kentucky was one of – if not the best – team in the SEC.
Outside of his first two seasons with the program, where he coached Kentucky to back-to-back WNIT appearances, Mitchell strung together eight consecutive berths to the NCAA Tournament before missing postseason play all together during the 2017-18 season that saw an odd mass exodus of key players. UK made it back to the NCAA Tournament last season but fell to NC State in the Round of 32.
The 2018-19 team started off much like this year’s version with 8-0 records (last season’s team started 9-0). That team from a season ago lost two legendary senior guards in Maci Morris and Taylor Murray. They were one of the best defensive team’s ever coached by Matthew Mitchell. They were ranked in the top-25 from Week 4 until the end of the season. And yet, they have little to show for it outside of personal awards for one magnificent freshman.
But something about this year’s team feels different. They feel more complete. They have the required superstar that can transform a good team into a great team. The depth runs eight ladies deep with a talented transfer point guard eagerly waiting to step on the court in mid-December. The defense might even be better than a year ago. Scratch that, they are definitely better.
Once again, the top of the women’s game is dominated by a handful of obviously great teams. The Oregon Ducks recently beat the USA Women’s National Team. The Louisville Cardinals beat the same Oregon team just a few weeks later (although UL did fall to Ohio State on Thursday night). UConn and Baylor are significant title threats. South Carolina has returned to its rightful position as one of the teams to beat.
The build-up to Kentucky’s current undefeated record hasn’t been strenuous. Their most difficult challenge came in a three-point road win against the Virginia Cavaliers, who are currently 4-5 (after the Cavaliers lost to UK, they took on UConn just three days later. The Huskies won by 39.). However, since that win over Virginia, Kentucky has obliterated the inferior competition, winning the next four games by an average of over 36 points per outing.
The vibes have changed for Kentucky since the trip to Charlottesville. Shots are finally falling. Everyone is figuring out their role and executing it to perfection. There is a clear sense of intensity, a fire being kindled inside of them. Leadership is a common trait among this group of ladies. Fans are about to quickly learn the ceiling for this Kentucky team.
When No. 2 Louisville comes to Rupp Arena in nine days, it will be the most important game that Matthew Mitchell has coached in a long time. The Cardinals have been a dynasty of sorts since head coach Jeff Walz took over in 2007. He’s reached two NCAA Championship games, a Final Four, two Elite 8s, and four Sweet 16s, but has never managed to win the whole thing – which should speak on the difficulty it is to actually win that final game. A Kentucky win would establish them as one of the teams to beat in the NCAA. They’re currently riding a three-game losing streak to the in-state rival
This isn’t like the men’s game, where the top-25 is more-or-less made up of “best guesses” until conference play is halfway over. The fans and media both know before the first game is even played who the best teams are going to be and it typically doesn’t change too much throughout the course of the season. Unranked, non-Power-5 teams don’t have a repeated history of major upsets. If you beat a top-5 team, it’s not because of a fluke, it’s because you’re flat out better. There are no Evansvilles or Stephen F. Austins in this year’s field of women’s college basketball teams. There rarely is.
Right now, Louisville is correctly viewed as one of the best teams in the country. Kentucky has never felt that same feeling. And until the Wildcats take down a team of that caliber, they’ll never receive the same recognition. To be viewed as great in women’s college basketball, you have to beat the greats.
It won’t get easier once for Kentucky once SEC play begins, either. South Carolina (No. 6), Mississippi State (No. 10), Texas A&M (No. 12), and Tennessee (No. 17) will face the ‘Cats a combined five times in a span of just under two months. An unprecedented sweeping of those teams would position the Wildcats as an undeniable top team in the country.
And they can get there. What this team has done through eight games shows more than enough signs of greatness. They boast the third-best scoring defense in the country, allowing just 46.4 points per game. The rebounding on both ends of the court has taken a step from last season, especially on the defensive glass. The full-court press is forcing opponents into a turnover rate of near 29 percent – the third-highest mark in Divison I.
Kentucky doesn’t turn the ball over, they don’t make silly fouls, and they have incredible discipline all around. The team’s scoring numbers are all well-above average. The shooting distribution is spread evenly across the court. The only legitimate gripe one might have about this team is the lack of a true center down low as Kentucky opts for a more open floor with shooters surrounding willing passers – which more properly suits the modern game, anyways.
Of course, it all boils down to the potential of star sophomore Rhyne Howard. It took a few games, but the reigning National Freshman of the Year has found her rhythm. She’s averaging 23.5 points over the last four games, shooting slightly under 46 percent from the field and 35 percent from deep. She leads the team in rebounds and steals. She knows how to take over a game when her team needs her the most. As the season progresses, the Wildcats will need consistent signs of greatness from Howard if they want to reach the program’s first Final Four. They won’t be able to beat a Louisville or a South Carolina without her.
If Kentucky can win its next two games against Samford and Winthrop, they’ll match up against Louisville with a 10-0 record. Only five Kentucky teams in history have experienced 11 straight wins, four of them coming under Mitchell – and three of these were during Elite 8 runs. All of the best Kentucky teams in recent years have dominated the months of November and December, which the current ‘Cats are doing right now.
In his 13th season as head coach, Matthew Mitchell is on the brink of breaking his program into the conversation of an elite program.