As Jaida Roper and Rhyne Howard entered the interview area of the Southeastern Conference Media Day on Thursday, it was easy to identify who was who among the two mainstay players on Kentucky’s women’s basketball team.
Height was one obvious way. UK lists Roper at 5-foot-6, Howard at 6-2.
Also telling was how Roper took charge, looking up at Howard as she directed her teammate to the interview table across the room while she took the table closest to the door.
Roper said that this was an example of the kind of leadership she wants to display this season.
Size — or lack thereof — has nothing to do with it.
“She’s kind of the big dog,” Howard said. “I just listen to what she says.”
UK Coach Matthew Mitchell spoke of this coming senior season for Roper as “the culmination of a great career.”
Intelligence. Communication skills. Competitiveness. Sparkling spirit. All contribute to making Roper a key player for UK.
“You’d never know she is the smallest person on the team,” Mitchell said. “She has a lot of confidence. But the thing I like about her is she’s extremely smart. And she understands what she’s talking about. So it’s not just a bunch of nonsense that she’s just trying to be like a class clown or something. She knows what she wants. She wants to be great. She wants to be her best. She wants to help other people be their best. And she understands how you need to get there.”
For fans of UK’s men’s team, this combination of qualities might sound familiar. Earlier this decade, Tyler Ulis displayed such attributes in breathing life into the Bruce Springsteen lyric: From small things, mama, big things one day come.
Roper liked hearing the comparison to Ulis.
“I was a big Tyler Ulis fan when he was at Kentucky,” she said. “That’s a compliment to me, so, thank you.”
When asked why she admired how Ulis played, Roper said, “Just because he was so small. He got everything he wanted on the court. . . . He got his teammates involved. So to watch him do that, like, paved the way. I watch his highlight tapes all the time.”
Like Ulis, Roper has shown an instinct for basketball.
“Some of the things I see, I see it earlier than it actually occurs,” Roper said.
For instance, she said, she might “see” — or maybe more precisely, anticipate — Howard cutting to the basket before Howard actually makes the move.
“Her basketball IQ, her intelligence relates to what we’re trying to get done from a team perspective both offensively and defensively . . . ,” Mitchell said. “She gave us such a lift last year through areas of hustle and some of those intangibles every basketball player needs.”
Roper suggested that her nickname is Hustle.
“Just hustle all the time,” she said. “That hustle player that gets loose balls or does what the team needs me to do.”
Roper said her hometown of Memphis plays into this approach to basketball.
“Grit and grind,” she said of her playing style. “I’m from Memphis. That’s what we do.”
Indirect route to UK
Roper’s route from Memphis to UK is a story unto itself. She originally committed to Louisiana Tech. Then the school fired its coach, Tyler Summitt, because he had had an improper relationship with a player.
Roper, who described herself as “a jokester,” acknowledged being in basketball limbo was no fun.
“It was a very difficult time for me,” she said.
Meanwhile, Mitchell hired Louisiana Tech assistant coach Amber Smith to his staff.
Roper did not jump at the chance to play for Kentucky. At that time, several players transferred away from UK, which cast a shadow on the women’s program.
“Well, that was a concern at first before I took my visit,” Roper said. A meeting with Mitchell on her recruiting visit eased her concern, she said.
Mitchell described Roper joining UK’s team as “one of those silver linings in a cloud when you come across someone like Jaida Roper. She has always infected our team with enthusiasm, and I love that about her.”
As for her height, Roper offered a clarification.
“Listed as 5-6,” she said. “In my mind, I’m 6-8. You can’t tell me any different.”
Important upcoming dates
Oct. 22: Media Day
Oct. 30: Exhibition game vs. Southern Indiana
Nov. 5: Season opener vs. Mount St. Mary’s (Md.)