Kyra Elzy shouts encouragement from the sidelines at a recent game in Rupp Arena (Photo Credit Dr. Michael Huang)
When it comes to Kyra Elzy, I’m throwing a penalty flag for piling on. If you haven’t noticed, the UK Women’s Basketball coach has been under fire recently. There’s been outrage and indignation pouring freely from message boards, radio talk shows, and social media sites alike. Angry fans are understandably upset at the team’s less-than-stellar (9 – 7, 2 – 4 SEC) record. A recent four-game losing skid, consecutive blowout losses, and a season in apparent freefall only added fuel to the fire.
A much-needed 67 – 55 win over Auburn last night did little to quell the angst. As we’re starting to hear more cries for Elzy’s head on a platter, it’s high time we assess the situation objectively. Oftentimes in sports, perception and reality don’t quite match up. I feel that’s especially true in Elzy’s first couple of years at the helm.
Perception: Mitch Barnhart pulled the trigger too quickly on Elzy’s hire. After Matthew Mitchell retired, Barnhart named Elzy as his interim replacement coach on November 12, 2021. Less than two months later, the UK athletics director removed the interim tag and promoted Elzy to the permanent top spot. This was way too premature for an unproven assistant with no head coaching experience. Sure, she’s a product of the Pat Summitt coaching tree. But she’s no Pat Summitt (nor is anyone else). The seat will eventually get too hot for Elzy, and this season proves it.
Reality: With the benefit of hindsight, you could argue that Barnhart actually made the right move at the time in giving Elzy the keys to the car. If you remember, the team started out the season on fire, winning their first six games on their way to a top 10 national ranking. Even with a disappointing early exit from postseason tournaments, Elzy still was selected by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association as the NCAA Division I rookie Coach of the Year. With that impressive notch on her resume, Barnhart would have certainly removed the interim tag at the end of last year anyway. The timing of Elzy’s early appointment is, therefore, moot. Either way, she’d already be the permanent coach by now. It is what it is.
Perception: Elzy was the perfect assistant coach. However, moving up into the big chair just didn’t fit her DNA. It’s one thing to be a players’ advocate and friend when you’re Matthew Mitchell’s assistant. It’s a completely different ballgame when you’re responsible for laying down the law as the commander in chief. Elzy simply doesn’t have the stature or force of personality to effectively deal with everything that goes on with being the coach at Kentucky. She’s in way over her head. With all the suspensions and drama currently going on behind the scenes, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say she’s already lost the locker room on her way to the gallows.
Reality: Just the opposite. Elzy hasn’t been afraid to instill discipline and dole out suspensions during her short tenure. Imagine starting out your head coaching career by having to suspend your star player for disciplinary reasons detrimental to the team. That’s what happened with Elzy and Rhyne Howard last season. Howard sat out two games and quickly got the message. The same thing with Dre’una Edwards this year. Against Auburn, Kentucky’s second leading scorer and leading rebounder missed her third-straight game due to a team-imposed suspension. Earlier this season, Elzy also dismissed sophomore guard Erin Toller from the team for not meeting team standards. I thought it showed a lot of backbone and integrity on Elzy’s part for putting aside points and rebounding in favor of authority and discipline. In any successful organization, you have to run a tight ship. Elzy’s shown herself to be a stern taskmaster who’s more than willing to make her players walk the plank if they mess up.
Perception: Anyone who can’t make it to the Final Four with a generational talent like Rhyne Howard doesn’t have the coaching acumen to make it here at Kentucky. Under Elzy’s tutelage, Howard has gone from one of the premiere college players and the potential No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft to an inconsistent player who’s a bit too unselfish for her own good. Elzy’s emphasis on getting everyone involved is certainly good for team morale. However, with possibly the best player ever in school history at your disposal, the team might fare much better if Howard just puts everyone on her back and carries them to a championship. I’m sure her teammates won’t mind. If Kentucky doesn’t make waves with Howard in the postseason, this is the ultimate opportunity wasted.
Reality: Statistically speaking, Howard’s numbers under Elzy compare favorably to her stats under Mitchell. Plus, Matthew Mitchell never made it to the Final Four in his thirteen seasons as head coach even though UK hosted the Lexington regional on a couple of occasions. Even with talent like Evelyn Akhator, A’dia Mathies, and Victoria Dunlap, Mitchell still couldn’t get over the hump. To measure Elzy’s performance in a year and a half to that of her predecessor over the course of a decade is blatantly unfair. Navigating through the Covid quagmire last year and dealing with Blair Green’s devastating season ending Achilles injury are challenges that would have had many curled in the fetal position under their desks. Yet, Kyra Elzy soldiers on. Injuries, suspensions, and missed games due to Covid are legitimate excuses for a coach in transition. She needs more time to gain her footing.
Perception: Things won’t get any better because Elzy can’t recruit. Elzy has admitted herself that the SEC is the ultimate grind of a gauntlet. Night in and night out you’re going up against some of the premiere bigs in the country. The Wildcats simply haven’t been able to match up with anyone resembling the likes of an Aliyah Boston, Shakira Austin, or Jenna Staiti. You’d think they’d load up on some size in the recruiting pipeline. A look at the incoming class shows no help on the way.
Reality: 6-foot-5 athletes that can run, jump, and shoot don’t grow on trees. Unfortunately, most of them already play in the Southeastern Conference. Kentucky has always lacked an effective big body in the middle as far as I can remember. Part of that is their running and pressing style. Both Mitchell—and now Elzy—have put a priority on speed and quickness. BUT WAIT, help is indeed on the way. Tionna Herron, a 6-foot-5 center from DeSoto, Texas, has already signed with Kentucky. She’s listed by some recruiting services as the 11th best post player in the country. To complement their big catch, the Wildcats have also signed Saniah Tyler, ranked as the 21st best point guard in the country. Amiya Jenkins from Anderson County, a leading candidate for Miss Kentucky, will also join the party next year. You’re certainly not going to replace Rhyne Howard in the years to come, but the mere mention that the recruiting pipeline has run dry is pure fantasy at this point.
The other night, after the demoralizing homecourt loss to Ole Miss, I watched Elzy complete her postgame assignments. She entertained some VIP guests, signed some autographs, posed for pictures all with a smile on her face. She then finished up her obligatory interview with the UK sports network and met with media on Zoom. My point being is that there’s a whole lot more to being a major college basketball coach than just running drills and diagramming plays. Elzy has handled those duties thus far with class, dignity, and grace.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to winning basketball games. From that standpoint, I’m not saying with impunity that Elzy will get the job done. Only time will tell. And that’s what Kyra Elzy needs most at this point. Everybody sit back, relax, and quit piling on.
Dr. John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his UK basketball coverage, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online.