History bodes ill for WBB in NCAA Tournament; but Cats have chance to rewrite narrative


Kentucky Wildcats guard Chasity Patterson (15) dribbles the ball into the paint during the UK vs. Georgia women’s SEC Tournament basketball game on Friday, March 5, 2021, at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. UK lost 78-66. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Braden Ramsey

Everyone knows the long and illustrious resume of Kentucky’s men’s basketball program: most all-time wins, highest all-time winning percentage, 17 Final Fours, eight NCAA Championships, so on and so forth. The list of accolades for the women’s team, in a much smaller time span, is bound to not compare. Rhyne Howard and company are seeking to change that reality in San Antonio, but it’s highly possible they’ll end up as the latest Lexington bunch to fall short of lofty expectations.

The Wildcats garnered varsity status in 1974. This came after a 50-year hiatus of women’s basketball at Kentucky, caused by a University Senate bill abolishing the sport after the 1924-25 season. State politicians of the time believed “basketball had proven to be a strenuous sport for boys and therefore was too strenuous for girls”, which the university says played a part in the decision. The 2020-21 campaign is the 47th for the Cats since reinstatement.

The Associate for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) hosted women’s basketball national championships for a decade (1972-1981) before the NCAA officially sponsored an event on its own. The 24-team AIAW tournaments were Kentucky’s first “bids” for national title competition. Their first appearance came in 1979-80 under the direction of Debbie Yow, who coached the Cats to a 24-5 record. The team bowed out in the initial round to Oregon 86-81.

Kentucky made the AIAW the very next year despite changing head coaches. Anchored by superstar Valerie Still, Terry Hall’s Cats defeated Syracuse 81-80 for their first tournament victory, but succumbed to Maryland 83-80 in the Sweet Sixteen.

Still and Hall brought Kentucky to the first NCAA Tournaments in 1981-82, which sported an expanded 32-team field. A No. 2 seed, the first-time SEC Tournament champion Wildcats fought their way past Midwest regional No. 7 seed Illinois 88-80 and No. 3 seed South Carolina 83-79 to reach the Elite Eight, where they matched up with overall No. 1 seed Louisiana Tech. The Lady Techsters entered the tournament 30-1, and would not be deterred from destiny, beating the Cats 82-60 on their way to the national title.

Still and company returned to the Big Dance in 1982-83, one that further expanded to include 36 competitors. Ranked No. 12 in the country, Kentucky seemed poised for another deep run, but surprisingly dropped its first round Mideast regional contest to six-seeded Indiana 87-76. The Cats were the only top-three seed to lose their initial game that year.

Kentucky made just four NCAA tournaments from 1983-2009, never advancing past the second round. Matthew Mitchell’s arrival in Lexington changed the trajectory of the program, making it a regular NCAA participant. The Cats appeared in the event eight straight seasons (2009-2017), and nine of ten after returning in 2018-19. 

All in all, Kentucky has competed for the national championship on 17 occasions. Shockingly, the Cats have fallen to a team ranked below them or a single seed line above in a whopping 13 of those tournament appearances:

     – 1979-80: Ranked No. 13 in the AIAW poll, Kentucky falls to Oregon, who was T-20.

     – 1982-83: The No. 3 seed Cats lose to a No. 6 seed Indiana squad that never appeared in the NCAA Top-20 during the regular season.

     – 1985-86: No. 7 seed Kentucky lost to No. 10 seed Drake 73-70 in the first round (40 teams).

     – 1990-91: The No. 9 seed Cats slip against No. 8 seed James Madison 70-62 in round one (48 teams).

     – 2005-06: No. 5 seed Kentucky is defeated by No. 4 seed Michigan State 67-63 in the second round.

     – 2009-10: Fourth-seeded Kentucky beats fifth-seeded Michigan State and regional top-seed Nebraska before falling to third-seeded Oklahoma 88-68 in the Elite Eight.

     – 2010-11: The No. 4 seed Cats are sent packing by No. 5 seed North Carolina 86-74 in the Round of 32.

     – 2011-12: No. 2 seed Kentucky defeats No. 7 Green Bay and No. 11 Gonzaga on the way to the Elite Eight, where it falls to No. 1 Connecticut 80-65

     – 2012-13: The No. 2 seed Cats knock off No. 7 Dayton and No. 6 Delaware to make the Elite Eight for a second straight year, where No. 1 Connecticut again beats them (83-53).

     – 2013-14: No. 3 seed Kentucky beats No. 6 Syracuse before losing to No. 2 Baylor 90-72 in the Sweet Sixteen.

     – 2014-15: The Cats, a No. 2 seed, lose to the No. 7 Dayton Flyers 99-94 in round two.

     – 2015-16: No. 3 Kentucky is upset again by the No. 7 seed – this time Washington, 85-72, in the Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena.

     – 2016-17: No. 4 Kentucky loses to No. 5 Ohio State 82-68 in Memorial Coliseum.

The Cats have undoubtedly had their fair share of success: four Elite Eight appearances serve as the evidence. But in some of their strongest seasons, they’ve been forced out by worse teams on the opening weekend or blown out by opponents on a similar level. The final games of the season bring credence to the possibility of something equivalent happening again. Kentucky lost to a solid but inferior Ole Miss bunch to end the regular season, escaped a 5/12 Florida upset in the SEC Tournament’s second round, then got bullied by a Georgia team ranked directly in front of them in the AP poll – at the time – during the SEC Quarterfinals.

This points to cause for concern about the Cats’ trip to San Antonio being a short one. They’ve struggled defensively against talented interior players (Shakira Austin, Aliyah Boston and Jenna Staiti come to mind) and have become overly reliant on Howard at times, going in the tank offensively for long stretches when the game gets more physical. The back-to-back SEC Player of the Year could be heard begging teammates to shoot the ball during the conference quarterfinal with Georgia, and has appeared frustrated numerous times throughout the season at the occasional lack of will from Wildcat associates to take open shots.

A No. 4 seed, Kentucky, is tasked with one of the better low-major conference champions (No. 13 Idaho State) looking to make a name for itself in the Round of 64 and likely, if they advance, fellow top-25 seed Iowa two days later. Like the SEC Tournament path, the NCAA one will not be easy to traverse.

While the Cats could head home early, they may also stick around for longer than teams in their position typically do. Having Rhyne Howard captaining the ship obviously gives them a chance every time out, but the remainder of the roster is extremely talented. Jazmine Massengill is a great facilitator; Chasity Patterson can light up the scoreboard and provides elite defense. Dre’una Edwards has walking double-double potential. Robyn Benton and Blair Green have shown the ability to contribute off the bench. Treasure Hunt has been Howard-esque before in limited minutes, stuffing all categories of the stat sheet.

The biggest factor for each of those players, along with KeKe McKinney and Tatyana Wyatt, is consistency. Putting the burden of carrying this team through the country’s best entirely on Howard – no matter her greatness – isn’t fair, nor is it the recipe for success. She has demonstrated she can lead the team to victory when games come down the stretch, but forcing her to do it for an entire quarter or half is untenable. Allow her to conserve energy for crunch time, and good things can happen.

Kentucky is possibly the most polarizing team in the country. The Cats have gone stride for stride with some of the nation’s best, but also toiled with some on the opposite end. They’re capable of surprising, both positively and negatively. Whatever transpires is ultimately on their shoulders.

Kentucky’s Month of Madness begins at 2:00 p.m. E.T. on Sunday versus the Bengals. The game broadcast is available on ESPN.