UK WBB poised and ready for competitive season

UK basketball coach Matthew Mitchell calls out a play during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Monday, January 25, 2016 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won the game 64-63. Photo by Hunter Mitchell | Staff

By Chris Leach

After beating Union University in their only exhibition game this season, the No. 19 UK women’s basketball team is set to start their regular season this week.

The Cats will start the season Friday night at Memorial Coliseum against the No. 14 Miami (FL) Hurricanes. The Hurricanes will not be the only ranked opponent that the Cats play in their non-conference schedule, as head coach Matthew Mitchell has yet again built a tough schedule for his team.

Including the Hurricanes, the Cats will take on four non-conference teams that were ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25 poll. The Cats will also take on two non-conference teams who were not ranked in the Preseason Top 25 but made the NCAA tournament last season.

The Cats will surely be up to the challenge as last season they went undefeated in non-conference play while playing a handful of good teams.

The only game where the Cats will travel to face a ranked non-conference opponent will be at No. 5 Louisville. Last season UK defeated the Cardinals by 18 points at home.

The Cats will face Duke in their final non-conference game of the season. Duke was not ranked in the Preseason Top 25 poll but received votes.

Once the Southeastern Conference schedule rolls around, things do not get easier for the Cats as they are in one of the most competitive conferences in the NCAA.

The Cats are just one of the six ranked teams in the SEC. Mizzou and Texas A&M received votes in the Preseason Top 25 poll but were not ranked. The Cats will get a chance to play all of those teams at least once this season, sometimes playing certain teams twice, such as No. 4 South Carolina and No. 24 Mizzou.

With such a difficult schedule that lies ahead, the Cats will certainly need a talented roster if they hope to extend their consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament to eight. Luckily for UK, one of the most talented point guards in the country is on this year’s squad.

Senior Makayla Epps has been in the center of the spotlight all preseason long after she led the Cats in points per game last season. Epps has been included on many preseason watchlists, including recently being named to the Preseason All-SEC First Team by conference coaches.

In October, Epps was added to the Nancy Lieberman Award Preseason watchlist, which annually awards the top point guard in all of women’s college basketball.

The Cats also return their leading rebounder from last season in Evelyn Akhator. Akhator averaged 9.3 rebounds per game last season, and in the exhibition game against Union, Akhator grabbed 17 rebounds.

Before Kentucky, Akhator helped Chipola Community College win a national championship her sophomore year. Akhator’s championship experience could prove to be useful throughout the Cats’ tough schedule and in the postseason.  

Epps and Akhator will ultimately lead the Cats, but most of the roster after those two is a mystery. The Cats returners include Maci Morris, Alyssa Rice and Taylor Murray. Murray stood out last year leading the Cats last season in total steals, and Morris quickly showed that she could be reliable shooter making the second most threes on the team.

Many newcomers makeup the rest of the roster for the Cats, such as Makenzie Cann. Cann technically is a returner, as she was on the Cats’ roster last season, but did not make an appearance since she was forced to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules. This season she is eligible to play and is expected to be a great shooter coming off the bench.

The prized freshman the Cats got this offseason was Jaida Roper. Roper was a three-star guard in high school according to ESPN. Roper plays at a fast pace and is also expected to play big minutes off the bench.

The Cats also added three new members to the coaching staff this season, such as Kyra Elzy, who is the associate head coach, Niya Butts and Lin Dunn.

Dunn is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and came out of retirement to be a part of this year’s team.

With so many new pieces on the Cats’ roster this season, they will have to learn and adapt fast with the tough schedule that lies ahead.

The Cats will begin their regular season playing in the Kentucky Classic, which is being hosted at Memorial Coliseum.

On Nov. 11, the Cats will take on the Hurricanes, then the following day the Cats will play Albany, an unranked team who last season made the second round of the NCAA tournament. Tip-off for both of those games is scheduled for 8 p.m.