Mark Story

Why fans will see Kentucky college basketball history made in 2019-20

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Before the first Ashton Hagans steal, Jordan Nwora jumper or Rhyne Howard three-pointer, college basketball fans in Kentucky are guaranteed to see history in 2019-20.

For the first time ever, a men’s college hoops team from the commonwealth will play every other in-state NCAA Division I team in a regular season.

For the first time since 1993-94, a Kentucky men’s college hoops team will have three Kentucky Mr. Basketballs on its roster.

For the final time, our state will have seven NCAA Division I basketball teams before adding an eighth in 2020-21.

Below are 10 reasons the 2019-20 college basketball season in Kentucky shapes up to be unusually interesting:

10. Who’s gonna fill their shoes? In the past decade, the Murray State men’s basketball program has sent three point guards — Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne and, now, Ja Morant — to the NBA.

Now that Morant (24.5 points, 10 assists, 5.7 rebounds) is with the Memphis Grizzlies as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, who will MSU Coach Matt McMahon tab to try replace Ja?

It appears three freshmen — redshirt frosh DaQuan Smith and true frosh Chico Carter and Noah Kamba — will get first call to keep the Racers’ regal point-guard line going.

Ja Morant
One of three freshmen is expected to be the replacement for ex-Murray State star Ja Morant as the Racers’ point guard. Timothy D. Easley AP

9. Rhyne’s encore. As a freshman last season, Kentucky women’s basketball star Rhyne Howard produced one of the best seasons in school history. The 6-foot-2 product of Cleveland, Tenn., led UK (25-8) in scoring (16.4 points) and rebounding (6.6 rebounds) and averaged 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals.

As a result, Howard swept the National Freshman of the Year Awards, honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the National Association of Basketball Coaches and espnW.

The challenge for Howard in the coming season is producing a fitting encore. Raising the challenge, UK lost standouts Maci Morris (15.1 points) and Taylor Murray (12.4) to graduation, meaning opposing defenses will begin 2019-20 laser-focused on Howard.

After sweeping every major National Freshman of the Year Award last season, Kentucky star Rhyne Howard (10) faces the challenge of producing a worthy encore season this winter as a sophomore. Mark Mahan

8. The last dance. Under Coach Scott Davenport, the Bellarmine men’s basketball program has become one of the crown jewels of NCAA Division II. The former Ballard High School head man and University of Louisville assistant has led the Knights to 11 straight Division II NCAA Tournament appearances, including the 2011 national championship.

Last summer, Bellarmine announced that it will be moving to NCAA Division I and joining the ASUN Conference for the 2020-21 season. For Davenport and his team, this winter represents one final shot to add another Division II national crown.

This season will be the final one in NCAA Division II for Bellarmine and head men’s basketball coach Scott Davenport before the Knights begin the transition to Division I in 2020-21. John Minchillo AP

7. Coming home. After four seasons as an assistant to Shaka Smart at Texas, Tates Creek High School product Darrin Horn has returned to the commonwealth as head coach at Northern Kentucky.

At NKU, Horn, 46, inherits a program that, over the prior three seasons, went to the NCAA Tournament (2017), the NIT (2018) and the NCAAs (2019).

For Horn, the former Western Kentucky and South Carolina head man, the challenge is not only how to keep the good times rolling, but how to take Northern Kentucky to even greater heights.

Darrin Horn at NKU.jpg
Former Western Kentucky and South Carolina head man Darrin Horn is the new men’s hoops coach for a Northern Kentucky program that has played in the NCAA Tournament (twice) or the NIT (once) in each of the past three seasons. Ernest Coleman AP

6. Another national title defense. In the eight seasons since Chris Briggs became Georgetown College head men’s basketball coach, the Tigers have gone 219-59 and won two national championships (2013 and 2019).

This season, Briggs and the Tigers will bid to do something the tradition-rich Georgetown program has never accomplished: Back-to-back national titles.

Georgetown College Coach Chris Briggs, right, led the Tigers to NAIA Division I national titles in 2013 and 2019. Matt Goins

5. A boost from Georgia Tech. After last season’s 32-4 season ended, Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz lost seniors Asia Durr (two-time ACC Player of the Year), Sam Fuehring and Arica Carter to graduation. As a class, the departing trio went 123-23 in their U of L careers.

To replace the program cornerstones, Walz found help from an unlikely source: Georgia Tech. Yellowjackets transfers Elizabeth Balogun (14.6 points, 5.1 rebounds) and Elizabeth Dixon (11 points, 6.4 rebounds) were granted immediate eligibility at U of L by the NCAA after leaving Tech amidst an acrimonious coaching change.

In a season in which his program needed an injection of high-level talent, Walz added the reigning ACC Freshman of the Year (Balogun) and an accomplished 6-4 post player (Dixon).

Jeff Walz
Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz landed a talent infusion for his 2019-20 roster when Georgia Tech transfers Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon, both sophomores, were declared immediately eligible by the NCAA. Mel Evans AP

4. Trifecta of Mr. Basketballs. The 2019-20 Western Kentucky men’s basketball roster features three Kentucky Mr. Basketballs — Knott County Central’s Camron Justice (2015), Owen County’s Carson Williams (2016) and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Taveion Hollingsworth (2017).

As best as I can tell, the only other time a college team had three winners of Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball award on its roster was in 1993-94 when the Louisville Cardinals had Central product Dwayne Morton (1990), Hart County’s Tick Rogers (1992) and Male’s Jason Osborne (1993).

Former Paul Laurence Dunbar High School star Taveion Hollingsworth, is one of three Kentucky Mr. Basketball Award winners on the 2019-20 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers roster. Austin Anthony AP

3. The Tour de Kentucky. This winter, the Eastern Kentucky men’s basketball team will do something no other in-state team has ever done: Play against every other NCAA Division I team in the commonwealth in the same regular season.

The schedule for Coach A.W. Hamilton’s Colonels includes: Nov. 8 at Kentucky; Nov. 15 vs. Western Kentucky; Dec. 8 at Northern Kentucky; Dec. 14 at Louisville; Feb. 13 at Morehead State; Feb. 27 at Murray State; Feb. 29 vs. Morehead State.

In the history of Kentucky men’s college basketball, only Morehead State in 1960-61 and EKU in 2004-05 have before played all the other instate D-I schools in one season and, in both instances, it required NCAA Tournament action to complete.

Eastern Kentucky Coach A.W. Hamilton and the Colonels will face every other in-state NCAA Division I team during the 2019-20 regular season. Tim Webb

2. A “Mack attack” on Rupp Arena? Kentucky is 15-4 all-time vs. Louisville in Rupp Arena in men’s basketball. The Cardinals have not beaten UK in Lexington since the 2007-08 season.

For his first trip to Rupp as U of L head coach, Chris Mack will bring a veteran, talented Cardinals roster that some are projecting as a preseason top-five team. That might not be enough to best a talented Kentucky team — but Louisville looks to at least have a shot at winning in Rupp.

Jordan Nwora at ACC Media Day.JPG
The return of standout forward Jordan Nwora for his junior season is a big source of optimism for Coach Chris Mack’s Louisville Cardinals. Nell Redmond AP

1. A “point” of optimism. In Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley, the Kentucky men’s basketball program is returning second-year point guards. It is only the third time in the John Calipari coaching era that UK has brought back a lead guard from the previous season.

The two prior times it happened, Andrew Harrison helped direct UK to a 38-1 Final Four season in 2014-15. As a sophomore the following season, Tyler Ulis was named both SEC Player of the Year and SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

For Wildcats backers anxious to see UK return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015, the pair of experienced point guards on the current Cats roster is the best reason for hope.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.