With less than 48 hours to go until the 2016-2017 Kentucky Basketball season begins, it's time to take a look at the UK Women's roster and understand our strengths, our weaknesses, and the long-term forecast for these Wildcats.
Let's be honest: keeping track of the women's roster the last two years has been, well, interesting. Going into 2015, we felt Matthew Mitchell had FINALLY gotten a squad assembled with the perfect mix of veterans, newbies, and most importantly DEPTH. Then three weeks prior to the start of the season, one player was dismissed, and another transferred. Right after Big Blue Madness, two more players requested to transfer. GOODBYE DEPTH! Fortunately, the remaining players were capable of stepping up in a big way. Led by Senior Janee Thompson, the Cats had a strong season: they were consistently ranked in the top 25, had numerous victories over top programs to include their fourth straight win over Louisville, and a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Going into 2016, we lost Janee Thompson (last season's 2nd best scorer) to graduation, and Alexis Jennings (4th best scorer), Batouly Camara (8th best scorer) and Ivana Jakubcova (dead last in points) requested transfer releases. Losing 39% of your points, 29% of your steals, 37% of your rebounds, and 42% of our 3 point baskets hurts. But that means we still have 61% of our points, 71% our steals, 63% of our rebounds and 58% of our three-pointers, so....life is pretty good.
First off, let's talk about our two seniors: Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator.
Makayla is looking to wrap up an outstanding Kentucky career. She is a preseason All-American, two-time SEC All-Tournament team and All-SEC First-team athlete, and proud owner of one of the three triple-doubles in Kentucky basketball history. Makayla is also getting things done in the classroom as she pursues a degree in social work, having made the SEC Academic Honor Roll the last two years. Even though she's comfortable playing nearly every position, look for Makayla to be the starting PG this season. If Makayla can start hitting three-pointers at above 30%, she may be the most dangerous person on this squad.
Evelyn Akhator, who transferred to UK from Chipola Junior College, made an immediate impact during her first year in Lexington to include her 13 double-double performances. Evelyn's honors last year included being named to the All-SEC Second Team squad, along with SEC POW. Evelyn joined her fellow senior Makayla in being named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll last year and is pursuing a degree in Community Leadership and Development. You should anticipate seeing Evelyn continue to elevate her defensive skills, and once again lead the team in rebounds. Area of opportunity includes free throw shooting, where she hit just 58% of her shots, along with three point shooting. (Sure, she was 100%, but she just tried the one!)
Our two returning juniors are Alyssa Rice and Makenzie Cann.
Alyssa had a tough start to her season last year, missing the first 7 games due to a stress fracture in her foot but made up for it with a ton of effort and passion coming off the bench. A member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll, Alyssa's peers chose her to serve on the SEC's Student Athlete Leadership Council. This year, a healthy Alyssa is looking really strong in practices. You should expect to see her battling alongside Evelyn, blocking opposing teams and crushing hopes across the conference. I'm not going to cite areas of improvement for Alyssa...she knows she has a lot to do!
Makenzie Cann transferred to UK last year (yes, we have transfers coming IN too!) from Cincinnati, where she played 31 games and averaged 7 points per game. Per coaching reports, Makenzie took advantage of her transfer year to work on her conditioning and overall bball i.q....expect to see this Kentucky native looking to make an immediate impact when she hits the court. (For those who may be thinking, hey...she's not a veteran. Not on the scoreboard, maybe, but she did the practices and conditioning work and in this writer's opinion that counts.)
Our last but not least returning veterans are sophomores Taylor Murray and Maci Morris.
Taylor Murray decided to follow Tyler Ulis' example and showed us that awesome things come in small packages. 5 feet 6 inches of attitude on the court, Taylor led the team in steals (averaging 1.7 per game), was third in assists (2.2 per game) and shot a very impressive 83% from the free throw line. Taylor's biggest opportunities this season are basically experience, experience, and experience.
Maci Morris came in with a reputation for shooting, but not much chatter on defense. She worked HARD to change that impression last year. A starter in every game, Maci led the team in free throw shooting (86%), three-point shooting (39.2%), and hit just under 40% from the line. Maci's biggest opportunities this season include continuing to elevate her defense, rebounding and learning how to avoid silly fouls.
And there you have it, Kentucky women's six returning players. Next up, getting to know all our newbies!