A sense of normalcy returns — Kyra Elzy talks UK hoops — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, October 27, 2021

As I think we’ve established by now, I am not only a basketball writer, I am a basketball junkie. So the onrushing college season, with 358 D-I teams, not to mention D-II and D-III (my beloved alma mater, the Bard Raptors, host Sarah Lawrence on November 9) and high school all make for a landscape of compelling games all over — easy driving distance or my television.

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But a return to the season with fans in the stands — and for me, feeling comfortable covering in-person, in a way unvaccinated me did not last year — means an opportunity to get live looks at a host of different players, the kind of evaluation tool that’s key for me to do my job the way I want to, and didn’t have last year.

So I wondered: is the same true for players and coaches? And how close to normal are we, at this point?

“I mean, last year, I think there was just a great appreciation for being on the court,” Villanova head coach Denise Dillon said. “There was a lack of distractions of everything else with the exception of staying healthy, of course, and that was first and foremost. But the focus for our players was school and basketball. That’s what it’s about. So I think that’s been our intention as well… now we have an opportunity to do it full-go — really challenging them to want more.”

That’s the general consensus, from folks like Dawn Staley and Kelly Graves, too — it’s pretty close to business-as-usual. And that’s the promise, to me, of this 2021-22 season. I come into in knowing less than any season I can remember, simply because we can’t evaluate players, or coaches, or teams as if last season represented anything like a normal season within a development curve.

We just went through this with the baseball season, incidentally, and I expected a similar gap between what people had done in 2020 and what they’d produce in 2021, and man, was I right about that. I’m trying to take a similar tack here, but it’s happening in a two-fold way.

For those players who excelled, well, I’m not going to assume it is a fluke. Instead, I see it as a player who was capable of finding another level through, well, that, as someone who can do it through anything. So, for instance, Rhyne Howard, who crushed her 2020-21 season, with jumps in her game across the board, from assist percentage to turnover percentage to efficiency, I’m going to assume she keeps on growing.

“One of the things that I’m most proud of Rhyne about is that she’s in the best shape of her life,” Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said of Howard this week. “Her fitness, we really talked about last year, her being able to play 30-plus minutes drawing the best defenders. She received a lot of body shots last year. So really committing to the weight room and that’s one thing we did across the board as a team. We committed to the weight room. We have a new strength coach and coach Lee Taylor, who has been phenomenal. Our girls have really responded to him. And then we spent a summer also committing to nutrition to make sure that we’re fueling our bodies in order to play how we want to play up tempo and aggressive defensively.”

Howard averaged 34.8 minutes per game last year. So that’s going to be scary to watch.

But other players, who took a step back in their numbers last year? I’m not putting much stock into that. If it continues here in 2021-22? That’s different. There’s more data, and more normal data, at work. But I’m very much in wait-and-see mode on things like, for instance, Oregon’s late-season fade or Aliyah Boston’s drop in efficiency. (I still think Boston will be the WNBA’s next great big.)

Ultimately, we’re about to be immersed in data, overwhelmed by basketball all over. My kids are about to get vaccinated, too, so the thing I love to do as much as almost anything — pop them into the car, tell them who to keep an eye on, and let them experience this game with me — feels close at hand, too.

The world is not perfect, and never will be. But it’s about to have a lot more basketball in it, and that gets us closer.

This week in women’s basketball

Derek Willis previewed the Maryland team.

76ers fans hit the jackpot with Kate Scott.

Alexa Philippou has your Aaliyah Edwards update.

Like Mitchell Northam, I have my eye on Diamond Johnson, too.

And Madison Siegrist!

Kahleah Copper tells her own story.

Erica McCall’s latest pod features Val Whiting.

Terrific piece from Mark Singelais on a pair of Siena players with hearing impairment.

Charlotte Carroll seems to think UConn is going to be pretty good this year. I don’t disagree!

Jaden Daly catches up with Joe Tartamella of St. John’s.

And Just Women’s Sports went long with Tina Charles.

Five at The IX: Kyra Elzy, Kentucky head coach

Kyra Elzy. (screenshot from Media Day, October 25, 2021)

On having a full summer …

“Absolutely. You always knew how important that summer was, but last year when we didn’t have it we really just came in on the basketball court and started practicing. We didn’t really have time to gel. So you saw during points of the season when we hit adversity, the trust factor, understanding each other in different ways. It really showed itself. So this summer, we made a big commitment of making sure we’re doing team bonding on and off the court. We did Fort Campbell, which was one of the hardest things that we have ever done. It was exciting. It was fun. I had this bright idea. I was like the coaching staff, we’re going to do it with you guys. We’re going to be in the trenches. I promise guys, the first mile and I was like, whose idea was this? But you know, it really showed the staff in a different light and show the players that we were in the trenches together, and that it takes everyone in order to be successful. The other thing we did all summer long was the Elzy Era Give Back Tours, which I thought was a huge success. It gave us an opportunity to bond with each other, but also to give back to people who support our program. So it was a big hit for us this summer.”

On what she learned from the team at Fort Campbell …

“That we are tough and resilient, and we’re not going to leave anyone behind. That was an activity that forced us to be our best physically and mentally. And all year we talked about getting over the hump. When adversity hits that we have enough to get over the hump. And that’s what it shows resiliency.”

On the team’s vaccination rates …

“I feel comfortable with where we are right now we have met the 80% threshold. So we are doing good. Our trainer Courtney Jones make makes sure that we are really diligent and following COVID protocols to stay safe. Our administration and Jim Madaleno do a phenomenal job to make sure that we are educated and safe.”

On Treasure Hunt taking the next step as a sophomore …

“Yeah, it was a tough transition for Treasure last year. But what I love about Treasure, she’s going to continue to work. She understands her role and what we need her to do. And she is a work in progress. But when the light bulb is on she is a difference maker for our team. And so we are counting on Treasure. She’s going to make a big difference for us this year. She’s a big body guard that can play the three and four position and she can shoot the 3 people the way some people shoot free throws.”

On Jada Walker …

“We love Jada. She’s been a great addition to our team. She’s the lone freshmen. But she does not play like a freshman. You know, she arrived on campus and she was like, Coach, what do you need for me? And I was like, there’s three things I need for you to be coachable. I need for you to play hard, and I don’t want you to back down just because you’re the lone freshman and trust me, she does not back down. One of our first practices, she’s going on a fast break. She got fouled, they slammed her head into the backstop, she picked the ball right back up and she got the half court and started the offense again. So she brings a toughness, a high motor and there’s something to be said about a coach’s kid, you know, they just have a different type of toughness about them.”

On the WNBA having its highest ratings and carrying that momentum for women’s basketball into this season …

“You know, all year we talked about, we want to pack out Memorial Coliseum. You know, we want the fans back in the stands. We really missed them a year ago. And there’s something special about playing in front of a packed house. And that’s because we want to show people that we have a talented team, and a nice product on the floor. And for people to get behind this team. This is a team that you all want to see. We’re versatile, we play an exciting brand of basketball. And we want to make this the best college experience. And we can do that with Big Blue Nation.”

On the NCAA branding the women’s basketball tournament to March Madness …

“Well, we always want to move the women’s game forward. We’re talented, and we want to make sure that we receive the same exposure and once people watch the women’s game, they usually fall in love with it. So it’s just getting the exposure out there. So it’s great that the NCAA wants to make a brand. And it’s our job to make sure that we put the product on the floor that people want to come see.”

On the team’s general style of play …

“I want to play faster than we played last year. So up tempo, I think what makes this team very unique and special is our versatility. We play position-less basketball, we play fast. And then we talked about all summer that our defensive intensity must be there. It travels. So no matter where we go, our heart and intensity on defense and rebounding should travel with us at all times. And we must play a disruptive style of basketball. We are undersized, but we can press and run and be disruptive, which is a fun brand of basketball, hustle plays. We took a charge yesterday at the Blue-White scrimmage and the whole bench got up. But that’s something that we are talking about constantly in practice.”

On the ceiling for this team …

“Yes, I would agree with that statement. We want to shatter all ceilings. You know, Rhyne is obviously a talented basketball player, the best in the country for so many reasons. But with that said she has a supporting cast that can help take her to the next level along with this program. Jazmine Massengill has had a phenomenal summer. She has stepped up in the point guard position. She is leading on and off the court. Dre Edwards had a phenomenal summer, she’s lost about 20 pounds, she is in the best shape of her life playing with a lot of confidence. Blair Green, I am so proud of the progress that she has made. I always tease her, always see our fingers moving because she’s always calling for the ball. Blair, I promise we are going to get you a shot. But she is shooting the leather of the basketball. So I’m excited about the possibilities of this team.”

On if it is a national championship caliber team …

“One step at a time, Yes. But we have a very talented team. And we are one of the best teams in the country. And they’ve ranked us number 13 and our goal is to stay hungry and humble and continue to work and make progress each and every game.”

On what Rhyne gained from her Team USA experience …

“You know, she came back really confident. One of the things that I’m most proud of Rhyne about is that she’s in the best shape of her life. Her fitness, we really talked about last year, her being able to play 30-plus minutes drawing the best defenders. She received a lot of body shots last year. So really committing to the weight room and that’s one thing we did across the board as a team. We committed to the weight room. We have a new strength coach and coach Lee Taylor, who has been phenomenal. Our girls have really responded to him. And then we spent a summer also committing to nutrition to make sure that we’re fueling our bodies in order to play how we want to play up tempo and aggressive defensively. But Rhyne also a vocal leadership. She always was the lead by example, but the end of last year all of summer, and as we are heading into the season, she has been really, really vocal if that’s what we need it for her.”

On Olivia Owens …

“Yes, she’s committed to the weight room. And one of the things that we’ve talked to Olivia about is she brings a different dimension to our team. She’s physical, she likes contact, she’s going to hustle defensively, but all offensively, demanding the basketball and finishing in the paint. That’s what we’ve challenged her with. She’s setting unbelievable screens, getting people open. Now we’re talking to her about rolling to the basket and finishing in the paint with contact consistently. And that’s the challenge that we’ve asked her and so far, she stepped up to it.”

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.