The Kentucky women’s basketball team will be undoubtedly led by senior Rhyne Howard, perhaps the best player in the country, but coach Kyra Elzy knows the Wildcats cannot be successful with solely the superstar.
“Rhyne Howard cannot do it alone,” Elzy said at UK’s Media Day before noting that she was counting on others to score in double figures, naming three players: Jazmine Massengill, Robyn Benton and senior Blair Green, a sharpshooter and Kentucky native.
Before the first game, however, that supporting cast has already shrunk. Green, a projected starter, ruptured her Achilles during a closed scrimmage against Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 30 and will miss the entire 2021-22 season.
The injury to Green — a former Harlan County standout who started 18 contests last year and averaged 6.0 points per game — means the Wildcats will begin the season with only nine healthy scholarship players. And it makes Elzy’s hope for a semi-balanced offense even more difficult.
“Last year, we watched Rhyne too much, as she does make phenomenal plays. But we can’t get caught watching. We have to be apart of the action. And so, we need other people involved in the offence,” Elzy said at Media Day.
Howard is a special talent. She has averaged 19.9 points per game during her career, is a two-time All-American and the projected No. 1 WNBA prospect for the 2022 draft; had she been of age to enter the draft last year, she would’ve been among the top picks.
She’s expected to contend for national player of the year awards, but UK will also seek to involve more players in its offense than last season. Elzy, who was elevated from interim to permanent head coach last December, said that her team would play a fast and disruptive style.
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“If we play like we’re supposed to play, up tempo, shooting open 3s in transition and not having to play in the half court as much, it will allow other people the opportunity to score,” she said.
Massengill, Benton and Dre’una Edwards — who combined to average 21.4 points per game last year — will be asked to take on larger offensive roles alongside Howard, who Elzy called “the best in the country for so many reasons.”
“But with that said,” Elzy added, “she has a supporting cast that can help take her to the next level, along with this program.”
UK was a mainstay of the NCAA Tournament under longtime coach Matthew Mitchell — who served in that capacity from 2007 until stepping down last year due to health reasons — and made the field last season as a No. 4 seed under Elzy; the Wildcats are seeking their first Sweet Sixteen since 2016 and the first of the Howard era.
Last season, UK (18-9) won its first-round game against Idaho State but then fell in the second round to Iowa despite 28 points, eight assists, six steals, five rebounds and zero turnovers from Howard.
In both the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll and AP Poll, the Wildcats are ranked No. 13, and Howard is a substantial reason for that. She’s arguably the best scorer in the country, having averaged 23.4 points per game as a sophomore and 20.7 last year, and lots of eyes—including from the WNBA—will be on her this season.
Howard said she isn’t thinking too much about the WNBA Draft — “I could drop to the second round if I don’t do what I need to be doing,” she noted — but said she’s working to improve her strength and conditioning.
“This year, I’m just playing to show everyone that I am the best player on the court and leave no doubt about it,” she said.
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Howard was projected by media to win, once again, the SEC Player of the Year, and the Wildcats were picked to place fourth in the 14-team conference behind No. 1 South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M, although UK was ranked second- highest among SEC schools in the AP preseason poll.
The Wildcats open the season on Tuesday, Nov. 9 against Presbyterian at 7 pm and host North Alabama on Nov. 11 before a marquee matchup: a visit to No. 7 Indiana on Nov. 14.
“Our team goals never change,” Howard said of season expectations. “We want, obviously, SEC championship, Final Four, national championship. Very much that we can accomplish and definitely achieve if we keep working hard like we are now. But I mean, y’all will see that during the season.”
2021-22 Kentucky women’s basketball schedule
Hayes Gardner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HayesGardner.