Simply put, UA coach Niya Butts is ready for 2014.
“It’s good, it’s new, it’s here,” she said, with a smile.
For the Wildcats, it’s a new season. And it’s much needed: Arizona went 4-7 in nonconference play, Butt’s worst mark in six seasons.
Arizona will face Washington at 8 tonight in Seattle and Washington State at 1 p.m. on Sunday in Pullman.
“Right now, we’re 0-0,” said Candice Warthen, Arizona’s leading scorer. “That’s how we’re going in. Conference is a whole different season, and we know that conference is what matters the most.”
Through Butts’ first five seasons, the routine played out like this: The Wildcats would be solid in nonconference — they went 8-3 last season and 11-1 in 2011— only to falter once the calendar flipped and conference play started. The last two years, Arizona has a conference-worst 7-29 Pac-12 record.
This year, the Wildcats need to flip the script.
“I think it’s going to be tough,” Butts said. “Everybody in the league is battling for wins; wins are hard to get. All the games I’ve seen of late, like USC-UCLA, that game went right down to the wire. I think you’re going to see a lot of that in nonconference.”
Here’s a look at the two key storylines going forward for the Wildcats as Pac-12 play begins tonight against UW.
Arizona didn’t have much of it until recently. The Wildcats are riding a three-game win streak into Washington.
“Yeah, we’re feeling pretty good about it,” Warthen said. “We have a great opportunity to do good things in conference. We have confidence coming off a three-game win streak, and we’re ready.”
Arizona had a three-game winning streak last year going into their Pac-12-opening Washington road trip, then made it four with a win against the Cougars. Arizona lost to the Huskies before winning only three of its last 17 games.
Carissa Crutchfield, the UA point guard, is on a hot streak recently. In the last two games, Crutchfield is shooting 82 percent from the field (9 of 11), perfect from three-point range (6 of 6), with 28 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
She’s confident that the Wildcats can keep the streak going.
“This is my last chance to make an impact on Arizona women’s basketball,” said Crutchfield, a senior. “So that’s what I’m trying to do. We wanna get wins, we wanna go far, go to the tournament.
“We wanna get another one on the road. These are two winnable games so we wanna get a five-game winning streak going.”
Eight’s not so great…
Luck certainly hasn’t been the operative word for Arizona so far this season — and that’s even before thinking about all the close games the Wildcats have lost.
Just before the season, the Wildcats lost senior forward Alli Gloyd — an expected starter — for the year with a torn ACL.
Erica Barnes, a senior forward, missed four games with a concussion.
Nyre Harris, a backup guard, left the team after one game.
Now, the Wildcats have lost freshman forward Dezja James for the year with an ACL tear.
As a result, Butts is down to an eight-player rotation, and not by choice. The Wildcats have just eight healthy, eligible players available. Another player, Farrin Bell, transferred from SMU and has to sit out the year.
“It’s tough, but at the same time I think we have young players, veteran players that can step up and accept the challenge,” Butts said. “Losing Dezja hurts us, but it also hurt when we lost Alli. We just have to find ways to make up for that loss, and I think our team is focused on doing that.”
The scariest part? At least two Wildcats aren’t even 100 percent healthy themselves. Warthen missed all of 2012-13 with a knee injury, and is leading Arizona in minutes per game (34.1), a mark that might even rise going forward.
“My knee is doing pretty well,” Warthen said. “I still have pain from time to time, but in the games there’s just so much adrenaline that I don’t really notice it sometimes. I’ll be fine.”
The other is LaBrittney Jones, who is still recovering from a knee injury she suffered during her senior year of high school. Jones has started every game and gets 23.5 minutes per contest.