After two months of pre-Southeastern Conference action, it’s probably safe to say Kentucky women’s basketball is back.
Back to pushing the pace.
Back to pressing and turning teams over.
Back to a defense that can keep them in most games.
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And back to being ranked in the top 25 every week.
Kentucky has surprised with a 13-1 start, but can the Cats contend in the Southeastern Conference? They’re about to find out.
UK’s emerging threats
The Cats were picked to finish no better than seventh before the season, but the emergence of freshman Rhyne Howard, one of the SEC’s leading scorers and rebounders, has set up UK for better than that. Kentucky has finished no worse than fourth in nine of Coach Matthew Mitchell’s 11 prior seasons, including a regular-season title in 2012.
Those predictions also came before Mitchell brought back what was once his patented defensive pressure. This year’s Cats have turned it up to force 23.93 turnovers per game, good for fourth in the nation. They rank third nationally in steals with 170.
UK has three of the top 15 scorers in the SEC in Howard (fourth at 17.6 ppg), Maci Morris (10th at 16.1) and Taylor Murray (15th at 14.1) — “Big Three” production that only Tennessee can match with Evina Westbrook, Rennia Davis and Meme Jackson.
Howard and Morris rank in the SEC top five in three-pointers made while Murray ranks seventh in assists (4.4). Murray tops the SEC with 3.6 steals per game, two spots ahead of Howard’s 2.2.
Jaida Roper has emerged as the Cats’ most reliable scorer and playmaker off the bench, averaging 9.0 points and 2.7 assists per game.
Big names, big games ahead
The SEC boasts four other teams in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 with No. 7 Mississippi State, No. 10 Tennessee, No. 21 Texas A&M and No. 23 South Carolina figuring to prove the most troublesome to the Cats’ hoped-for success.
UK faces Mississippi State (Jan. 6) and Tennessee (Jan. 10) in a brutal back-to-back road stretch and must twice take on Texas A&M (Jan. 27 and Feb. 28) and South Carolina (Jan. 31 and Feb. 21).
Mississippi State’s (12-1) only loss has come on the road against No. 5 Oregon and the Bulldogs have a monster in the paint in 6-foot-7 sophomore center Teaira McCowan, who leads the SEC in field goal percentage (70.6), rebounds per game (12.5) and blocks (2.8). She also chips in 16.7 points per game to rank seventh in the SEC. Forward Anriel Howard is just off that pace with a 16.1 scoring average. Kentucky has seen improvement from post players Tatyana Wyatt and KeKe McKinney, but depth there figures to be a problem against the Bulldogs.
In addition to Tennessee’s trio of Westbrook (16.2 ppg), Davis (14.8 ppg) and Jackson (13.8 ppg), the Vols get nearly 10 points per game from Zaay Green and Cheridene Green. Tennessee (11-1) dropped its only loss at home against No. 6 Stanford.
Texas A&M (11-2) has the league’s top scorer, Chennedy Carter, who runs the offense to the tune of 21 points and 4.3 assists per game. Kayla Wells, Aaliya Wilson and Ciera Johnson chip in double figures in points each game, as well.
While South Carolina (8-4) looks to have stumbled a bit from the lofty standard it has set in recent years, including a national title in 2017, Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks haven’t lost to UK since 2015, riding an eight-game win streak.
Three of South Carolina’s losses this season were to top-10 teams. The Gamecocks are led by junior guard Te’a Cooper’s 12.3 points per game and still have former Cat, senior Alexis Jennings, in the post averaging 10.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
UK also faces a Feb. 7 road game against a resurgent Auburn (12-1), which boasts on of the league’s leading rebounders in Unique Thompson (11.2 rpg) and has knocked off some big-name out-of-conference foes in Oklahoma and North Carolina.
But first, Vanderbilt
The Commodores (5-8) come to Memorial Coliseum to open the SEC slate at 7 p.m. Thursday with one of those losses coming to Middle Tennessee, a team UK routed 72-55.
Coach Stephanie White enters her third season trying to revive the Commodores after going 7-24 last year. They are led by Mariella Fasoula’s 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and get 11.8 points per game each out of Chelsie Hall and Cierra Walker.
Mickie DeMoss, who was head coach at Kentucky from 2003-07, is in her first season as director of offensive analytics for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt at No. 16 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Vanderbilt 5-8, Kentucky 13-1
Series: Vanderbilt leads 28-24
Last meeting: Vanderbilt won 70-55 on Jan. 15, 2018, in Nashville.
SEC records this season
Records for every SEC team entering conference play Thursday:
Mississippi State 12-1
Texas A&M 11-2
South Carolina 8-4
Ole Miss 6-8