When unbeaten and No. 19 Kentucky (9-0) visits unbeaten and No. 5 Louisville (9-0) Sunday for the annual renewal of our state’s marquee women’s college basketball rivalry, no one could blame UK freshman Rhyne Howard for feeling some coaching confusion.
The 2 p.m. tipoff at the KFC Yum Center will be the 10th official game Howard has played for UK Coach Matthew Mitchell.
That is only four more games than Howard has played for Louisville Coach Jeff Walz.
Last summer, Howard starred for the Walz-coached USA Basketball Under-18 National Team that went 6-0 while capturing the gold medal in the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Mexico City.
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Though she was Team USA’s sixth-leading scorer (8.5 points per game), Howard’s all-around play — she averaged 4.7 rebounds, three assists and had 11 steals and eight blocked shots — earned her tournament MVP honors.
In the process, the player who has become an immediate star this season for Kentucky and the head coach of UK’s fiercest rival formed a mutual admiration society.
“What a great kid,” Walz said Thursday. “One thing I can say about Rhyne, she always seemed to be in a good mood. She was fun to be around. And I think that’s a testament to how she was raised and the type of person she is.”
Said Howard: “(Walz) is so funny. He is a very good coach. I learned a lot from playing for him.”
On a star-packed Team USA, Walz said Howard displayed a knack for making big plays when they needed to be made.
In the gold-medal game, the Americans held “only” a 39-31 lead over Canada at halftime. “We came out and drew something up for (Howard) and she hit a three to start the half,” Walz said. “That kind of got us going.”
Team USA went on to roll to an 84-60 victory over the Canadians.
“Rhyne was outstanding,” Walz said. “She rebounds the ball well. She definitely can score. ... She’ll defend. She’s an all-around player. I can’t say enough good things about her.”
Howard’s MVP showing with the Under-18 National Team, coming after a stellar career at Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tenn., raised expectations to stratospheric levels as she entered her freshman season at UK.
Through nine college games, the 6-foot-2 guard has actually exceeded the sky-high anticipation. Howard is Kentucky’s leading scorer (18.2 per game), leading rebounder (6.9 per game) and blocked-shots leader (12). She is second on the team in steals (24).
“She surprises me all the time, makes some unbelievable plays,” UK senior star Maci Morris said. “She does it all. I wish I was as good as her when I was a freshman.”
Already, Howard has a 29-point game (against Southern); two double-doubles (25 points and 12 rebounds vs. North Carolina, 17 and 10 against Morehead State); a buzzer-beater that sent a game into overtime (UCLA); a game-winning free throw (UCLA); and a seven-steal game (Rhode Island).
“What should be dangerous for everyone else is she’s doing all this stuff and she doesn’t know exactly what she’s doing right now,” UK’s Mitchell said.
“She’s a great talent and a terrific persona, and smart, and intelligent, and naturally strong, but when she really starts to understand the game and she really dedicates herself to a strength and conditioning program and a high intensity practice regimen every day, there is where the danger (for opponents) lies.”
Louisville, with four starters returning from a team whose season ended with an overtime loss to Mississippi State in the 2018 Final Four, will be easily the most talented opponent Howard has faced so far as a college basketball player.
That test will also be a chance for Howard to have a reunion with her Team USA head coach.
In Mexico City this summer, Howard said there was some friendly joshing between Louisville coach and future Kentucky player.
“(Walz) did give me crap about being in Lexington,” Howard said before this season. “He was like ‘At least one of us knew where to go in Kentucky.’ I’ll show him when we play them.”
For what it’s worth, Walz said Louisville did make a recruiting inquiry about trying to woo Howard to a Kentucky destination other than UK.
“She had her list down to three or four (schools) and we weren’t really able to get in,” Walz said. “She was a great, great recruit for Matthew and his staff.”
On Sunday afternoon, Howard promises she will suffer no on-court dissonance in a game in which the voices of both head coaches will be familiar to her.
“I don’t think it will be hard,” she said. “Coach Walz is a great coach and I learned a lot from him. It will be great to catch up, but Coach Mitchell knows where my heart is.”
Mark Story (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
No. 19 Kentucky at No. 5 Louisville
2 p.m (WLAP-AM 630)