May 29, 2022

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Where does UK women’s basketball stand after non-conference play?

The 2021-22 Kentucky women’s basketball season is about to kick into high gear.

One of the most anticipated seasons in UK women’s hoops history has so far featured the emergence of a freshman guard and a historic performance by star senior Rhyne Howard, but the team also has a losing record in games against high-major opponents.

With the entire 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule still to come — after a few more days of waiting following the news that Thursday’s SEC opener between Kentucky and Auburn was postponed — it’s time to take stock of second-year head coach Kyra Elzy and the Wildcats.

Before the season, Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Cameron Drummond posed 10 questions facing the 2021-22 UK women’s basketball team.

After a 7-3 mark so far this season, let’s revisit those questions.

1. What else can Rhyne Howard accomplish during her senior season?

A triple-double, it turns out.

One of the few accomplishments not on Rhyne Howard’s résumé entering this season was a triple-double, but she fixed that by recording 22 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a November home win over Winthrop. It was just the third triple-double in the history of the UK women’s basketball program.

In addition to that historic performance, though, there have also been some struggles during Howard’s final college season.

Howard’s two worst shooting games of the season came against two of the best opponents UK has played (3-for-9 from the floor in a home loss to DePaul and 3-for-13 from the floor in a road loss at Louisville).

Here are some of Howard’s statistics:

45.7% shooting from the floor this season vs. 44.4% last season.

33.3% shooting from three-point range this season vs. 37.3% last season.

18.7 points per game this season vs. 20.7 per game last season.

6.5 rebounds per game this season vs. 7.3 per game last season.

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Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, right, who stole the ball from West Virginia’s Jayla Hemingway on Dec. 1, has averaged 18.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists this season. Silas Walker [email protected]

2. How will new starters adapt to their roles?

Howard is the only UK player available to play that started more than half of last season’s 27 games.

As such, nearly everyone else can be considered a “new starter” for the Wildcats.

Head coach Kyra Elzy has settled on a preferred starting lineup of guards senior Robyn Benton, senior Jazmine Massengill, Howard, sophomore Treasure Hunt and junior forward Dre’una Edwards.

Benton has matched Elzy’s preseason expectations for her to become a double-digit scorer as Benton is averaging 13.2 points per game.

Massengill has been one of the NCAA’s most efficient point guards and is third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Hunt has struggled mightily from three-point range this season (2-for-18 for 11.1% shooting from distance), but has been an effective rebounder who often plays near the rim as an oversized guard (5.7 rebounds per game). Also of concern is Hunt’s free-throw shooting. She has taken the second-most attempts on the UK team (46), but she is shooting just 47.8% from the line, the second-worst percentage on the team.

The charismatic Edwards has been the team’s most efficient shooter, making 55.8% of her 120 shots from the field while also leading the Wildcats in rebounding with an average of nine per game. She has recorded five straight double-doubles.

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Dre’una Edwards (44) averages 17.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 55.8% from the field for Kentucky. Silas Walker [email protected]

3. How will the Wildcats fare against a high-profile non-conference schedule?

It was a disappointing showing in non-conference play so far from UK, and one that has dropped its ranking in NCAA Tournament projections.

The Wildcats went 1-3 in non-conference games against teams currently projected by ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme to be in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky lost by 21 at Indiana, nine at home to DePaul and six at Louisville. The lone quality win came at home against a bubble team, West Virginia, by 23 points.

This also means UK still hasn’t beaten Louisville since December 2015.

Each loss wasn’t created equally, though.

The Indiana loss came in just UK’s third game of the season and the team’s first road contest.

The DePaul loss came without Edwards, who was serving a one-game team suspension that night.

UK led with less than three minutes to go at Louisville, despite a woeful shooting game from Howard.

In Creme’s first bracketology of the season, Kentucky was projected to be a No. 3 seed and host games in the NCAA Tournament.

In Creme’s latest bracketology on Thursday, Kentucky had slipped to a projected No. 7 seed and would not host games.

The Wildcats might still play another non-conference game this season, as UK is seeking a replacement opponent for this week after the Auburn game was postponed.

4. How will a complete offseason help Kyra Elzy as head coach?

So far this season, Elzy has determined her ideal starting lineup and a tight rotation of players, although there aren’t many options to choose from.

Initially, Elzy had guard Emma King and center Olivia Owens, both juniors, in the starting lineup during a preseason exhibition against Lee University and the season-opening game against Presbyterian College.

By the second half of the Presbyterian game, King and Owens had been swapped for Robyn Benton and Treasure Hunt, as Elzy showed her emphasis on versatility through her lineup selections.

Kentucky’s commitment to conditioning during Elzy’s first full offseason as head coach has been evident through both Edwards’ stellar season and the fast-paced nature of UK’s defense, which is averaging more than 20 turnovers forced per game.

5. How will Kentucky overcome the loss of Blair Green (to a season-ending injury)?

There are certain intangible qualities possessed by a senior guard like Green that are impossible to replace.

With that understood, the scoring provided by fellow backcourt players Benton and Jada Walker this season have helped offset the loss of Green, who averaged between five and six points per game during her first three seasons.

Overcoming the threat Green would pose as a floor spacer and three-point shooter has been a bit more difficult so far.

For her UK career Green is a 33.3% three-point shooter who has made 59 of 177 attempts from distance. Green took the third-most three-pointers last season of any returning UK player.

As a team, Kentucky is shooting 33.5% from three-point range this season after making 34.6% of its shots from deep last season, 36.3% in the 2019-20 season and 36.4% in the 2018-19 season, all with Green on the roster.

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Kentucky guard Jada Walker (11) has averaged 11.5 points and 2.5 assists so far during her freshman season. Silas Walker [email protected]

6. Is there room for Jada Walker to be a contributor on this Kentucky team?

Absolutely.

In many ways Walker has been the highlight of the UK season so far, instantly making her presence felt off the bench with hustle plays on both ends of the court. Her speedy drives to the rim on offense and tenacious, physical defensive play have served as momentum moments for Kentucky.

Walker has started twice for the Wildcats, and her per-game averages of 11.5 points and 2.5 assists have been a boost to the team along with the energy she provides UK in its defensive press.

While just a freshman, Walker has easily been one of Kentucky’s biggest contributors through 10 games.

7. What impact will a full capacity Memorial Coliseum have on Kentucky’s home performances?

The Wildcats still technically haven’t lost at Memorial Coliseum this season, with UK’s lone home loss coming inside Rupp Arena.

Kentucky is 7-1 at home, and UK’s best win of the season (over West Virginia) came at home in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Through UK’s eight home games this season — including the loss to DePaul at Rupp Arena — the average listed attendance has been 3,661 fans.

Elzy is now 18-3 all-time at home as UK’s head coach, although so far this season it has largely been a case of Kentucky winning the games it should.

8. Can Kentucky challenge for a double bye in the SEC Tournament?

Finishing in the top four in the SEC regular-season standings and securing a double bye in the SEC Tournament — meaning the Wildcats’ first SEC Tournament game would be a quarterfinal — remains the target for UK this season.

While league media this preseason voted Kentucky fourth in the SEC standings, the Wildcats have likely slipped a bit in the pecking order of what is an incredibly talented SEC.

No. 1 South Carolina, still undefeated this season with plenty of standout wins, is in a class of its own both in the SEC and in the country.

No. 7 Tennessee’s only loss this season is to defending national champion Stanford.

No. 13 Georgia recently won on the road at then-No. 2 North Carolina State.

No. 21 LSU and No. 23 Texas A&M currently sandwich No. 22 Kentucky in the AP Top 25 rankings, and both the Tigers and Aggies already have double-digit wins this season and two wins each over teams currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky will have its work cut out to finish in the SEC’s top four.

9. How will having a smaller roster impact Kentucky this season?

Elzy only has nine scholarship players available to play this season given Blair Green’s season-ending injury, but the core UK playing rotation features just seven players.

After starting the first game of the season, Emma King hasn’t returned to the starting lineup and has played only 24 combined minutes against quality opponents. King has shot just 26.9% from the field and has scored in only five games this season.

Sophomore forward Nyah Leveretter missed the first five games of the season with a non-COVID illness and is still finding her way into the playing rotation. Leveretter has played a combined 40 minutes across four games.

Kentucky’s seven other scholarship players (Benton, Edwards, Howard, Hunt, Massengill, Owens and Walker) have averaged 26.9 minutes played per game this season.

10. What does Kentucky’s starting lineup look like?

As previously mentioned, Elzy has made clear her ideal starting five this season.

When possible, Massengill, Benton, Howard, Hunt and Edwards will constitute the UK starting five, with Walker the first choice to fill in for someone who can’t play.

Walker is usually the first player to come off the bench in a game for UK, subbing in after about three minutes.

This story was originally published December 27, 2021 6:20 AM.

Profile Image of Cameron Drummond

Cameron Drummond works as a sports reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader with a focus on the University of Kentucky women’s basketball program, in addition to other college, high school and professional sports in the area. Drummond is a first-generation American who was born and raised in Texas, before graduating from Indiana University in 2020. He is a fluent Spanish speaker who previously worked as a community news reporter for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper in Austin, Texas.

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