It’s been Media Week here at the University of Kentucky over the last several days and Women’s Basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell took the virtual stage on Thursday. We haven’t heard from him in a while, so he had plenty to talk about as he continues to prepare himself for a 14th season in Lexington.
Here’s what we learned.
Matthew Mitchell is back running practices and close to 100%
The biggest and most important news coming from Thursday’s media session was the health update that Mitchell provided on himself following a successful brain surgery operation back in June. It was the first time he has spoken publicly since doctors repaired a crack in his skull and the first time he’s been able to talk about an incredibly hyped-up Kentucky Wildcats team.
While still not quite 100 percent yet, Mitchell did say that he’s been running practices since being medically cleared back on Oct. 15, just one day after practices officially began across the collegiate basketball world. He intends on being ready to go for when the schedule tips off on Nov. 25 and that “the plan is to be full speed a little bit before we start the season.”
In his absence, Mitchell was quick to sing the praises of his assistant coaches, particularly associate head coach Kyra Elzy. He said the entire staff has done an excellent job of creating a smooth transition between coaches under these unique circumstances.
“The assistants have done a great job and I cannot sing their praises enough,” Mitchell said on Thursday. “I cannot tell you what it was like to not see the team for a while and then go see the progress they are making and basically, you know, it looks exactly like a Kentucky basketball team. I am really, really appreciative to the assistants and what we have built here.”
Mitchell does not expect Jazmine Massengill or Robyn Benton to play this season
Well, it would appear I got everyone’s hopes up for nothing: Mitchell does not foresee either of the remaining transfers-in-waiting, Jazmine Massengill and Robyn Benton, to receive an immediate eligibility waiver.
“Jazmine and Robyn, we are not expecting them to play,” Mitchell told the media. “We would have to get some different information before I would start to count on them to play this season. They are working hard in practice and are great additions to the program. If something on that changes we will certainly update everyone as soon as it does. The way that I approach it, we are not expecting them to play but would be a tremendous bonus if they were able to.”
After transferring away from Tennessee and Auburn, respectively, Massengill and Benton would have provided an immediate proven and veteran punch to an already impressive roster for the upcoming season. They’ll still be able to play in the 2021-22 season, but having them for this year would have boosted this team’s ceiling to a national title hopeful. Without them, Kentucky still figures to be a top 10 to 15 team throughout the season, but we’ll be left wondering “what if?” with two productive juniors on the sidelines.
Mitchell didn’t say explicitly that Massengill and Benton were declared ineligible, so I won’t entirely rule out their potential additions, but it seems unlikely at this point.
Even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, this is our answer for now. The NCAA is dumb.
Rhyne Howard is going to be GOOD (duh?)
It almost feels pointless that I have to repeat this, but even more disrespectful to ignore it entirely: Rhyne Howard is going to be GOOD good this season.
Expectations have never been this high for a Kentucky Women’s player and hopes of a Player of the Year trophy will be followed by dreams of an SEC Championship and a Final Four run. And if anyone can achieve those lofty goals, it’s the ever-improving Howard. She has an undeniable talent and is a player a coach shouldn’t mince words around, something Mitchell doesn’t do.
“The one thing I go into practice with every day is just trying to make sure I hold her to a very high standard,” Mitchell said. “If I see something that she needs to do a little bit better, just encouraging her to do that. She is so well rounded and just makes such a difference in every phase offensively and defensively she can make game-changing plays. She has a chance to be the best player out there and as a coaching staff we just have to remind her that if that is what she wants to be she has to practice with great pace and intensity each and every day and it will pay off for her as an individual and will pay huge dividends with how the other players will respond.”
Howard is the clear focal point of the offense heading into the new season, just as she was a year ago as a sophomore. She never shied away from that pressure, either, and it doesn’t sound like she’ll be affected by it as a junior. In reality, she can’t let that pressure get to her; Kentucky as a team can’t afford her to defer or play second-fiddle. For the 2020-21 season to truly be special, Howard has to take over more often than not, even if she has an excellent supporting cast around her.
“If a team leaves her open every possession, she needs to shoot it,” Mitchell said about his star player. “She is such a great scorer and shooter it is just amazing. I used to get in trouble for shooting the ball when I played and Rhyne Howard is going to get in trouble for not shooting the ball.”
No Louisville game, entire schedule almost completed
Kentucky has still yet to announce the finalized schedule as we are now under a month away from the start of the regular season, but we at least know one team that won’t be on the calendar. The postponement of the UK-Louisville game to the 2021-22 season wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was disappointing, nonetheless. The Cards figure to join Kentucky as one of the top 15 teams in the country, if not top-five. Last season’s matchup was a Rupp Arena-based thriller between ranked squads that saw the ‘Cats narrowly lose after Howard’s potential game-winner couldn’t find the bottom of the bucket. We won’t be gifted with that same possibility this time around, but don’t worry, it’ll be back.
“They [Louisville] are always such a challenge each and every year and tough and we obviously profit by playing them,” Mitchell said. “This year, we were not able to get it done and I just think that there are some things that are happening during the pandemic that are not ideal but we have to make the best of it and move forward. We will definitely resume the series, it is an important game.”
Mitchell did say that a completed schedule is almost finished, although we don’t know much more than that. Kentucky announced back in May that they would participate in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge this year against Kansas State.
Nyah Leveretter continues to receive the most preseason hype
Her name came up more than once during the player’s media session earlier this week and Matthew Mitchell couldn’t resist bringing her up, as well.
Incoming first-year player, Nyah Leveretter, is a 6-foot-3 forward with guard-like abilities and insane athleticism. She was tabbed as a four-star recruit out of high school and a top-100 ranked prospect before committing to the ‘Cats. While fellow first-year teammate Treasure Hunt has understandably controlled the hype from this class, it’s been Hunt who is earning the preseason praise.
“Nyah is a freshman whose motor will not stop,” Mitchell said about Leveretter. “She’s just going to give you everything she has, same every practice, it’s really impressive, very long explosive athlete, so she’s already making her presence felt in practice with rebounding, really has a great nose for the ball, great timing, can get some big rebounds.”
During Monday’s media session, senior forward KeKe McKinney said that Leveretter has been “impressing” her during preseason practices and that she is “going to have big things coming from her.”
Get ready for some weird lineups
Unlike previous seasons, the roster configuration for this version of the Kentucky Wildcats is versatile from top to bottom. While he hasn’t been able to work out any rotation ideas just yet, he noted that the possibilities already appear to be endless.
Three guards, Howard, Hunt, and rising junior Blair Green are all at least 6-feet tall while senior forwards McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt are both over 6-foot-1 in height. Add in Leveretter at 6-foot-3, Dre’Una Edwards at 6-foot-2 (who was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year before transferring to UK following the 2018-19 season), and 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Olivia Owens, who was recently granted an immediate eligibility waiver not long ago, and this roster has size the program is not accustomed to.
Howard and Hunt are more-than-capable ball handlers and McKinney showed a season ago she can be relied upon to bring the ball up the floor during a fastbreak opportunity. Green steadily improved in that area as the season went on and Edwards was underrated as a passer and ball-handler while at Utah. But then Mitchell can mix in 5-foot-5 point guard Chasity Patterson, who is poised for another breakout season after being named the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year last year. Kentucky could even go ultra big and still have multiple ball handlers and four shooters on the floor. A 6-foot-only lineup featuring Howard, Hunt, Edwards, McKinney, and Owens covers every single base on offense and defense; Patterson can spice it up as the lone guard, too.
“There are some combinations where you can play four guards and one post and still have some good size out on the court and I think that could cause some problems,” Mitchell said about his roster. “You could even swing like a Dre’una Edwards out to the 4 or the 5 or get reps at the 3. So there is some versatility there where we will just continue to let that develop and shake out in practice.”
No matter the result, it’s going to be a fun season.