There’s been much talk about recent Kentucky departures, but on Wednesday the talk turned to arrivals, in the form of forward Alyssa Rice.
The sophomore, who missed the first seven games of the season while battling a stress reaction in her foot, has been practicing with the eighth-ranked Cats and is cleared to play Thursday night against Louisville.
“She is going to be an important part of our team this year so it’s good to have her back,” Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Rice, who has been doing a lot of cardio to stay in shape, was able to practice full-go for the first time on Monday and Wednesday.
Mitchell said it’s not clear how many minutes UK will get from Rice, especially as she works her way back.
But he does know he’ll get “her best effort,” especially on defense.
“She does help us with defensive positioning,” he said. “We’re struggling with that right now, and we’re trying to get better at that and we will get better at that. She is, for us, an experienced player as a sophomore and she understands help defense a little bit better than some of our other players at this point in time.”
The 6-foot-3 sophomore from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, averaged 2.9 points and 2.7 rebounds for Kentucky last season, playing in 34 games with 11 starts.
She will be able to help spread around the minutes for a Kentucky team that recently lost juniors Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who both asked for transfers.
Without Rice, Kentucky has had just eight players available in recent games.
“Whatever we get from her will be a positive situation for us because she’s going to be a big part of our team and she brings us energy, effort, toughness,” Mitchell said of Rice. “She’ll take charges; she’ll get rebounds. She’ll set good screens; she’ll run the floor every time: she’ll make layups.”
‘Rupp gets crazy’
If UK is able to attain one of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament, as it has in years past, there’s a good chance that the Cats will be able to play their first two rounds in Memorial Coliseum and then the next two rounds at Rupp Arena.
That hasn’t been lost on the players or coaches, who see these regular season games against Louisville on Thursday and then versus Duke (Dec. 20) at the downtown venue as good practice for the future.
“It’s not lost on any of us that it’s a great opportunity for us to try to work as hard as we can and try to see if we can play a game in there in late March,” Mitchell said. “That would really be special.”
Junior guard Makayla Epps called them “good preparation games.”
“Get in there and get some shots up,” she said. “It’s a hard place to play. It’s a big arena, small basket. It’s all about getting shots up and just playing there, getting used to the atmosphere.”
Five of Kentucky’s nine available players have never played in Rupp Arena and the noise level is something Epps plans to mention to her teammates before the game against the Cardinals.
“Rupp gets crazy,” Epps said. “It gets so loud in there that you can’t even hear yourself think. … I’m going to talk to them right before we go on the court tomorrow, make sure everyone’s mindset is on the same page and make sure everybody is calm because it’s gonna get a little frantic a few times.”
Mitchell is hopeful that the same crowd that made Rupp Arena electric against Baylor early last season will come back for the Louisville game on Thursday.
“That three (late in the game) against Baylor in there last year, I thought that place was going to come unhinged,” he said. “You get that many people in a place and you play exciting basketball, you’re going to get excited.”
Kentucky hasn’t played Louisville in Rupp Arena since 2007, which was the last time the Cardinals beat the Cats (80-65) in Lexington behind a monster performance from Angel McCoughtry.
It’s the fifth time the two teams have met in Rupp with the series tied 2-2 there.
Louisville Coach Jeff Walz, who has his own youth and inexperience this season, is expecting some rowdiness.
“We know on Thursday night it’s going to be a great ball game, two very good teams and I’m expecting a great crowd,” he said. “It should be a fun basketball game.”