SAN FRANCISCO — As Arizona’s head coach in the late 1990s, Joan Bonvicini came close to landing a Southern California high school star named Diana Taurasi.
“You know, she’s sort of a good player. Maybe the best of all time,” Bonvicini said Wednesday, with characteristically dry understatement, at the Pac-12 women’s basketball media day
But there was something Taurasi didn’t like, and she dropped the Wildcats.
Their games weren’t on TV very often.
Taurasi went to UConn, and didn’t arrive in Arizona until she later became a star for the Phoenix Mercury.
UA coach Adia Barnes doesn’t have that problem, thanks to the Pac-12 Network and the conference’s media partners. Partly as a result, Barnes has the nation’s No. 2-rated recruiting class lined up for 2018, on top of what is already an improved roster for the upcoming season.
“I’m going to sell that there are 111 games on the (Pac-12) Network next year. I’m going to sell that there are five ESPN games,” Barnes said. “Because kids who come from far — from Chicago, from New York, from overseas — their parents want to see them play. Now with the network, you can see them play.”
There’s only one problem with this, and it surfaced Wednesday during the Pac-12’s media day: Because exposure has helped the conference again produce multiple Final Four contenders and five possible Top 25 teams, the Wildcats have intense competition all around them.
So ... Arizona was picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12 this season, after being picked 12th last season and finishing in a four-way tie for ninth at 5-13.
It’s a potentially long-term win for the Wildcats with some short-term pain, if you can even call it that.
Barnes and her players don’t. Just a win, period, even if the game is a loss sometimes.
“I will always sell if you want to be the best, you’ve got to play with the best,” Barnes said. “Do you want to go to a (place) that is No. 1 but doesn’t play a hard game all year? In the Pac-12, you beat each other up all year, but it really showed in the results last year that it prepared us for the tournament.”
The competition doesn’t bother grad transfer forward Kat Wright, either. In fact, it’s a big part of why she was drawn to Arizona and the Pac-12 from Florida Atlantic last spring.
“I’m excited,” Wright said. “I know for me (the competition) was a huge selling point and for the girls I know from the 2018 class, they’re competitors. They don’t shy away. They move toward that.”
The new blood isn’t the only factor in that mentality. Senior guard JaLee Bennett, one of the Wildcats’ remaining veterans, has caught the bug, too.
“Picking us 11th … we just go out there and play,” Bennett said. “There’s nothing to lose. They have something to lose. We’re just out there trying to prove them wrong.”
The Wildcats had some success doing so last year, and Bennett says she can already notice an improvement and increased confidence in practices this season.
“Even on our lower-energy days, we still have more energy than we did last year,” Bennett said. “If practice is not going well, basically controlling the controllables is the biggest thing I notice.”
It’s a carryover from last season, when Barnes found herself “drinking out of a firehose” as a first-year head coach. She saw signs of progress toward the end of the season.
“You don’t notice it right away until the end of the year (when) JaLee’s starting to speak my language and I’m like, ‘OK, they actually listen to me’ — those little things,” Barnes said. “Or you see things on the court. And those are the things I value.
“Now I’m starting to see it more. It’s not where I want it to be, but it’s definitely in the right direction.”
Bonvicini says she’s noticing it, too, having attended some early season practices as a supporter and mentor to Barnes, her former star.
“You can visually see the enthusiasm,” said Bonvicini, who is also a Tucson-based analyst for the Pac-12 Networks. “They’re much more vocal and Adia, the first year when you make that change from assistant to head coach, it’s a big change with all the responsibilities and decision-making. She’s much more comfortable now because you know more what to expect.”
So maybe all that effort and recruiting and television doesn’t translate into a whole lot of Pac-12 wins now, but it might before long.
“It’s not official yet on their recruiting class,” Bonvicini said, “but to have the quality players she has coming in, it’s amazing.”