In part I of this series, we met all eight of our shiny new Wildcats. They bring size, speed, shooting, but most of all critical depth to the UK Hoops program. Now let's discuss our returning veterans, and speculate a bit about the season to come. The goal is known - INDY - but how can we get there?
Our departing players (Jennifer O'Neil, Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, Jelleah Sydney and Jaycee Coe) took with them 30% of UK's total offense, along with 51% of our blocks, 42% of our steals, 38% of our assists, and 35% of our rebounds. That's a lot, especially on the defensive stats with losing more than half of our blocks. That said, we held onto the great majority of our playmakers, one of whom didn't play a minute in our final 17 games last year. Let's review:
Janee Thompson - We nicknamed our Chicago-born point guard "Fierce" for a reason: Janee is tenacity redefined on the court. Prior to her season-ending injury at South Carolina on January 11th, Janee played a critical role in keeping Kentucky ranked in the top 25, especially in her heroic game against the Dirty Birds on December 7th, where she scored 19 points to include a 3 point game winner. I'm not certain how Mitchell will manage with two great point guards (Janee and Makayla Epps) both returning, but expect he'll position Makayla off the point to allow Janee the opportunity to adjust to life back on the court in a familiar role. Unless he plays 2 point guards. (Don't laugh. Cal did it last year.)
Note: if the roof doesn't completely come off of Rupp when Janee's name is called, we have failed as a fan base.
Makayla Epps - "Baby Girl Epps" transformed into "Big Game Epps" during her sophomore year with the Cats. Makayla also morphed into the team's best point maker, delivering a career high 42 points against Mississippi State in February, and dropping another 31 points on the Bulldogs at the SEC tournament. A power player in almost every position, Makayla really shone when moved to point guard after Janee Thompson's injury. Off the court, Makayla has been dealing with legal issues due to an alcohol related incident over the summer that resulted in her suspension from the team. No word yet on exactly when she'll be out of Mitchell's doghouse, but per her coach he's looking for permanent lasting changes from his Marion County star and hopes this will be a one-game suspension once the season starts. (We hope so too!)
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers - Another Marion County star, Kyvin had a solid first season with UK Hoops after sitting out her freshman year due to a pulmonary embolism. Kyvin started in 15 of 34 games last season, and was UK's 3rd best 3 point shooter at 20 for 66 attempts. Kyvin really started coming into her own during the SEC tournament, similarly to how Makayla and Linnae Harper did in their first season. With Kyvin's size, speed and shooting, look for her to try and fill departing Azia Bishop's shoes on the inside with her rebounding. I'd love to see her step it up with defensive blocking as well.
Speaking of Linnae Harper, we're thrilled to have another season with this incredible Chicago native. Linnae led the team in rebounds (240, 7.1 per game, 7th best in the SEC), and steals (69 total or 2 per game). Linnae is LETHAL on defense, and we should see her continue to grow her skills in this area. Offensively, Linnae has the opportunity to drastically improve her free-throw shooting....51% is just not going to cut it if she wants to help transition that defensive prowess to points on the board. Linnae was part of Team USA at the Pan American games this year, and I'm looking forward to seeing her continue to grow her leadership skills on and off the court.
Alexis Jennings - After a great freshman year landed her a spot on the SEC All-Freshman team, it will be exciting to watch Alexis continue to grow in her sophomore season. Alexis delivered double digit scores in 14 games last season, and hit a career-high 27 points against TSU. I'm hoping to see Alexis continue to build her offensive prowess this year, after hitting 45% from the field in her first season. She was also our third best shot blocker, and this is a defensive skill she should be able to build on this year.
Alyssa Rice - One of UK's seven (SEVEN!) McDonald's All-Americans this year, Alyssa had a solid freshman season. Only scoring 100 points on the season, Alyssa was the second best shot blocker on the squad. She will continue to grow her skills this season both on offense and defense, and hopefully help provide some much needed inside power to the Cats' game. With Ivana Jakubcova healthy, Mitchell can try a "Twin Towers" inside presence with his centers which has not been an option for UK in years!
SO....now that we know all the players, let's talk about the opportunities for this season if we wish to make a serious run at UK's first ever Final Four.
- Consistent execution on defense: Last year when UK was "on" defensively, they were gorgeous to watch. Despite rarely ever having a height advantage, the Cats were able to rattle their opponents by ferocious and unyielding man-to-man (or woman-to woman?) pressure. "40 Minutes of Dread" will have to evolve a bit as we go from 2 halves to 4 quarters of play, but the bones of this style of play should continue. With more depth and size available, our D should really be the backbone of this squad.
- Improved offense from every spot on the court: You can insert my usual rant about free throws here (67% is just not good enough), but the bigger opportunity is that our size should help the Cats more effectively muscle their way inside to the basket. I'd love to see some players really develop their three point shooting so we can spread the court a bit more effectively...the Cats shot 29% to their opponents' 32%, and Jennifer O'Neil's was 35% of our total 3 point performance. Janee, Makayla, Linnae and Kyvin are already decent shooters behind the arc, and this could be a strength when partnered with their larger Wildcat sisters on the court.
- Learning to drive a car successfully: I'm kidding, but I'm not. Two years ago, a wreck took Makayla Epps out of serious play for a good chunk of the season, and we lost Jaycee Coe and Ivana before the season even started last year to yet another motor vehicle calamity. I vote Paul Miller Ford donates some student driver cars to teach the Cats how to successfully navigate the wilds of New Circle Road. (Unless that's somehow an NCAA violation, in which case maybe Mitch can get all the ladies bikes?)
- Learning how to close out games: That's actually pretty self-explanatory, but if you need a refresher? Watch the Tennessee game from January 29th and the Dayton game from March 21st.
Basketball season is SOOOOO close to being here, and UK Hoops looks to have a really exciting blend of experience, size, shooting, speed and depth for 2015-2016. It should be a GREAT year at Memorial Coliseum, and we hope to see you here at ASoB, cheering our Cats onto victory!