'It's like parenting': Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy discusses Rhyne Howard's return
Reigning SEC Player of the Year back from suspension
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The top women’s basketball player in the SEC, and perhaps the nation, is set to make her season debut after serving a two-game suspension to start the season.
Rhyne Howard, the Kentucky Wildcats star junior guard and defending SEC Player of the Year, will take to the court Thursday for the first time this season after she was suspended for “not upholding the standards of the program.”
The 2-0 Wildcats are scheduled to take on Kansas State on the road inside Bramlage Coliseum at 7:30 p.m. ET. Tonight’s game will be streamed on ESPN+. The game can also be viewed on WatchESPN on computers, smartphones or tablets. Kentucky is looking to go 3-0 on the season after defeating Murray State 86-60 and Belmont 70-50.
Howard, this year’s preseason pick to repeat as SEC Player of the Year, missed the first two games of the season after interim Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy suspended the All-American. Elzy is very familiar with the team and its players. She is Kentucky’s former associate head coach, named interim head coach last month after Matthew Mitchell — the winningest head coach in Kentucky women’s basketball history with over 300 wins — announced he was retiring from coaching.
What led to the surprise suspension of Howard, announced shortly before the season-opening game Nov. 25 against Murray State, was not discussed in the school’s statement beyond it being the result of Howard “not upholding the standards of the program.” Elzy also suspended senior forward Tatyana Wyatt for three games for a violation of team rules. Wyatt has to sit out one more game before her return.
On Wednesday while speaking to the media, Coach Elzy remained mum on the exact conduct by Howard that warranted the suspension but stood firm on her decision.
“Well, it was a tough decision,” Elzy said. “Obviously it's not a decision that you want to make any time in your career when you're talking about a player of this caliber. However, this program is built on honesty, hard work and discipline and our winning attributes and one of them is accountability. I love them enough, our staff loves them enough that we are not going to turn our head. Our job is to prepare them for life after basketball and life after Kentucky. And we want them to be successful on and off the court.
“And so, in turn, sometimes you might have to make tough decisions. It’s like parenting; it does not come with a rulebook. You just have to go with your gut and they might not like it but it is the best thing for them. At that time, our job is to guide, lead, inspire impact and that's what we're here to do.”
After Sunday’s win against Belmont, Elzy was asked if the team had adjusted to Howard not playing.
“We have prepared in practice to be ready, and like I said before, there is no one bigger than the team. Rhyne is extremely gifted, she is extremely talented, but she cannot do it herself,” Elzy said. “So that's where the depth of our team and talent comes in. And, Rhyne makes us different. She is going to come back and obviously help elevate our team, but as you heard me say, team, it is a team game and it is going to take all of us to win.”
Howard, who was a 2019-20 Wooden Award All-American, has been named to the John R. Wooden Award Women’s Preseason Top 30 Watch List.
Howard has also been named an unanimous selection to the Associated Press All-America Team, Southeastern Conference Preseason SEC Player of the Year by league coaches and media, WBCA Wade Trophy Watch List, 2021 Jersey Mike’s Naismith Trophy Preseason Watch List and Cheryl Miller Award Preseason Watch List.
Now she’ll get to start showing, on the court, why she’s so highly regarded this year.
Howard is the leading returner after a sophomore season where she led the Wildcats and ranked second nationally with 23.4 points per game. The guard also led UK with 6.5 rebounds per game and 62 steals, while she was second on the team with 29 blocks and third on the team with 68 assists. Howard hit 84 3-pointers last season, which was the most in program history in a single season.
Howard was the only player in program history to score 25 or more points in five straight games while she was the second player to score 20 or more points in eight straight games.
Elzy, looking for her third straight win as head coach, doesn’t see the suspensions as distractions and is looking to continue the winning ways at Kentucky.
“I think anytime you’re taking over a program, and you’re following someone like Coach Mitchell, that has been extremely successful, that is tough in itself,” she said.
“Also, just dealing with COVID and the social issues that we are dealing with. That is like no other. So I think I am, figuring it out, just like the rest of the coaches across the country. And I just think being flexible, taking every day as they come is important.
“You know, some days I just hold my breath waiting for the COVID test so just take it minute by minute, day by day, but also just being open to the players, having honest conversations, how they are feeling what they need and being surrounded by amazing staff that can take so much off your plate that I can just focus on the issues at hand.”