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Rhyne Howard and Kyra Elzy preview 2021-22 Wildcats

“We want to shatter all ceilings.”

Rhyne Howard Isamu Haynes-Sunayama - Sea of Blue

College basketball is in the air, and the Kentucky Wildcats will open the 2021-22 season with top-15 men’s and women’s hoops teams.

Under head coach Kyra Elzy and National Player of the Year contender Rhyne Howard, the 13th-ranked Wilcats (AP Poll) should have one of the SEC’s best teams yet again while contending for the program’s first Final Four appearance.

But don’t tell Elzy this team has any kind of ceiling.

“We want to shatter all ceilings,” Elzy stated at UK’s Meday Day while adding, “I’m excited about the possibilities of this team.”

Here is a recap of what Elzy and Howard had to say at today’s Media Day via UK Athletics.

Kyra Elzy

Opening Statement …

“Thank you all so much for being here. It truly is an honor. We are very appreciative in Kentucky women’s basketball that you all cover our program with great support. So thank you. We are really excited about this team. I have so much to cover and know you have some great questions so I won’t steal your thunder. But before we get started, I want to say a special thank you to our coaching staff, they have been amazing. Coach Niya Butts, Coach Amber Smith, Coach Gail Goestenkors – she is phenomenal. Then, Coach Lin Dunn. She is not with us in person, but I can assure you that I get 15 pages of text per day to make sure that her presence is felt. So a big shout out to them.”

On Treasure Hunt not playing in the Blue-White game Sunday …

“Yes, Treasure was not feeling her best. So she was ill yesterday, so she will be back in practice today.”

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.”

On the Commit To It theme …

“Yeah, culture is something that we’ve talked about all summer long, or from the end of last year, all summer. It was funny, Coach Gail Goestenkors when she got here, we were doing our staff retreat, and she was like, I’ve heard culture more this summer than I’ve heard in the last five years. But that was really important to me to set the tone. And this is my program now and change the guards from coach. So setting the tone and culture of how I wanted things was really important. And last year, I was kind of thrown into it, we were in the middle of the season. So it was survival mode. So culture and committing to it. We’re asking them to commit to it on the court, whether it’s how we play defense, whether it’s buying into your role, how we want to play up tempo, committing to the weight room, committing to nutrition, committing to the community. It’s all encompassing, and what we are trying to do to move this program forward.”

On Dre’s progress helping her become more consistent …

“Well, being fit will help her all around. One, she won’t rest on defense. So she has really ramped it up. And we probably can keep her out of foul trouble because some of the files that she would receive is probably because she was not in the fitness level that she needed to be in. But offensively it helps us so much. She’s leading the break, she’s shooting the 3, she’s crashing the offensive rebounds, you will see a different Dre it was this year.”

On adjustments made from last season …

“You know, it goes back to resiliency. When adversity hits or when we were fatigued, we have to be able to get over the hump. And that was one of the things that we talked about at Fort Campbell. So I didn’t tell them that they were going to Fort Campbell, they thought they were coming into a team meeting. So surprise. And then what we talked about is the unknown, there’s going to be adversity, there’s going to be unknown this season, there’s going to be things that happen to us that might derail our mental psyche for a minute that we will have to bounce back. And then we talked about the team bonding. So at the end of the meeting, I told them, that everyone, including the staff, we’re going to drop our cell phones in a bag. You would have thought I was talking a foreign language that they had to give up their cell phones for 24 hours. But it was the best thing because it really forced us to communicate and bond and be able to problem solve. And so that was one of the biggest things that we didn’t do down the stretch last year that we will be better this.”

On adding Coach Goestenkors to the staff and if it has been intimidating …

“Clearly it’s not intimidating because I hired her on my staff. There’s no ego here. That’s the thing that I love about this coaching staff. We are all in it to win and be the best that we can be and we all have strengths and weaknesses. So it’s imperative that you have a staff that can balance each other out. So obviously she’s a Hall of Famer. I’m blessed to have two Hall of Famers, and they are both phenomenal but what each coach brings to this staff is exactly what we need at Kentucky. Where Coach Butts is the high energy very intense, along with Coach Amber Smith who played here. So she brings a different dynamic She’s close to age, not to age ourselves, but closer to age to the players. And then I thought coach Gail Goestenkors brings a balance to the staff where Coach Amber, myself, Coach Butts were all cut from the same cloth. We’re all pretty intense and high, where coach, Gail is even keel. So you need a good balance on top of her wealth of knowledge and experience. And then having Coach Lin Dunn and she’s a coach to the coaches. So she coaches me every day along with this staff. So we have a great mix. And it’s important to have a great balance for your players that they come to us for different things as we’ll.”

On her coming down from the rafters in Rupp …

“No, I’m not scared of heights, and it did fit my personality. I’m pretty adventurous. So I’ve been skydiving. I’ve been bungee jumping, parasailing. So I do all sorts of crazy things in my free time when basketball is not going on. So now I can add that to my list. I never thought that I was going to repel in Rupp Arena. But now I can just add that to my list of adventurous things. Coach Butts definitely wouldn’t go with me. But I can always count on Coach Amber as my adventurous partner as we went skydiving together.”

On the potential of starting lineups …

“Well relationships with your players. You have to have honest communication both ways. So, I talked to them, they talked to me, they talked to the staff. So relationships number one, which I’m truly confident in this program we have great relationships with our players. That does not mean every day is perfect or a bed of roses but we have honest conversations. Then you give them a chance to play out the role so after practices or exhibition game then you go have one-on-one meetings and that is where I can I can say this is what we need from you in order for this team to be successful and how to use yourself. We have those conversations all year, not just when basketball season starts. We’ve already started this summer these are the things I need, how do you think you can help this team and it’s honest flow both ways but that’s part of the #CommitToIt. In order for us to be our best, everyone has to commit to their role.”

On Nyah Leveretter …

“Nyah is one of the most coachable kids that we have on this team. I love her progression. She’s willing to work. I have really challenged her, defensively she plays how I want to play. She’s long and athletic and plays really hard. She the pogo sticks. She can get off the floor really quick for offensive rebounds. And for her is finding her confidence. Right now, we have more confidence in her that she probably has it herself. That’s part of it is you’re trying to find your niche and role on the team. We’re going to need Nyah and she will continue to progress and work hard I look forward to seeing what she does this year.”

On NIL …

“No, it has not been a distraction for our team and that’s one of the things that goes back to having honest conversation with your players and great relationships. We got in the room and we just talked about it. The NIL is here and we’re going to use this as a positive, but at the end of the day we have one name across our chest and that is Kentucky and that’s we are playing for. When we everyone wins individually and we talked about no jealousy no resentment and they kind of laughed. But they understand what’s at stake. We all came here to win. One they want and need an education, two is to have this experience, three is to win. And that’s what they came here for and they’re very focused on that, But the great thing about the NIL is we have been on the cutting edge at the University Kentucky for a long time in helping them brand, having financial classes, brandings classes. It’s been helpful and we’re doing really well with the NIL.”

On grading the game film of Amber Smith’s play yesterday …

“She played great. I did give her a hard time about not crashing the boards and I don’t know if she took any charges. It was great to have Mikayla Epps with us along with Azia Bishop. Kentucky is always a place that we want them to come home, so it was great to have them on the floor. But I can’t give Amber an A because I need her to get back out there and keep working so I’ll give her a B+ but don’t tell her I said that though.”

On hitting their stride recruiting …

“Well the only transition for me, I’ve been in the business for 20 years and recruiting is what I did. So that was not that big of a change for me besides now they say I’m the head coach. Now, I will say that I trained Coach Amber and we have been recruiting together for a while and all of a sudden she became my boss and makes sure that I am on-task and calling and I do not miss a call. Recruiting has been phenomenal and recruiting to Kentucky has been such a blessing doing it for a place that I love. But it has been the same for me, I still put my head down and grind and we have done really well and we will continue to search out players that can help us get where we want to go.”

On Rhyne Howard’s development …

“Great question, one, she is projected to be the number one draft pick and that is in our minds to make sure we are helping her get to the next level with her game. But, the two things we have challenged Rhyne with to take her game to the next level, she is extremely talented and gifted and her basketball IQ if phenomenal and can score at all three levels. But the one thing that we have worked with her on all summer is her post game, being able to post up. She is a big-body guard. She needs to post more consistently and finish. Two, not resting defensively. She is unbelievable defensively when she is locked in and playing hard. Challenging her to get steals and pick up the ball and be aggressive. And ask her to rebound the ball. She rebounds really well, I still think she can be in double figures in rebounding. Those are the challenges. As far as the team, obviously Rhyne Howard is a big part of what we do. But there is no person bigger than this team and she understands in order for her to be her best she needs her teammates around her. There is a good balance there. She has their respect and they play hard for her but she always plays hard for them as well. In order for her to be her best, we have to be at our best. We have to continue to challenge her everyday to be better. Just because she is talented we have to make sure she is working on her game and playing her best in practice as well.”

On having relationships with high school coaches …

“It goes back to relationships. That is the key to recruiting. You have to have great relationships. As far as the coaches, you have to have good rapport in order for them to allow you in and also to put yourself in the best position with their player. Overall, to be able to give back to our Kentucky high school coaches more specifically, it is really important as the state school and the head coach that I have good relationships and in communication with them. I want them to feel like I am available for whatever they need as we are wanting the same thing for Kentucky basketball from grass roots, high school and college to be the best it can be.”

On Rhyne Howard’s production this season …

“I want Rhyne Howard to be aggressive. She is an integral part of our offensives success, but as I alluded to earlier, Rhyne Howard cannot do it alone. I have challenged Jazmine Massengill to score in double figures, Robyn Benton to score in double figures, Blair Green to score in double figures. We are going to have to have multiple people to score in double figures to really keep the defense honest. Last year, we watched Rhyne too much. She does make phenomenal plays, but we cannot get caught watching and get involved in the action. We need other people involved in the offense. I will do a better job of making sure we are balancing out who is getting shots and where, but if we play like we are suppose to play – up tempo, shooting open 3s in transition – and not have to play in the halfcourt as much you will see it will allow other people the opportunity to score.”

On Rhyne becoming more vocal …

“Well, as far as getting Rhyne more local, it is work. It is like when you are missing free throws, you have to go in and practice free throws. For Rhyne, it was not natural for her to just be a vocal leader. So we did a boot camp with her and she had to speak to the media and meet with different people in different professions to help her. Also this summer we had a leadership council that Coach Gail Goestenkors ran and they met with our leadership group here at Kentucky and they were in meetings and we put them in situations where they had to lead and that helped them do it. She has also come into her own with maturity as well. That has been helpful. This team is all really close and this group gels and has great team chemistry. Rhyne is more open about what she needs from them on the court and what they need from her. Those are some of the conversations that they can have on their own that has really taken some pressure off her shoulders.”

Rhyne Howard