Adia Barnes didn’t think her program would be here so soon. This is, after all, just Year 3 of the Arizona Wildcats’ rebuild.
Barnes has been realistic about the steps her team needed to take. Other coaches, including UCLA’s Cori Close, Oregon’s Kelly Graves and Oregon State’s Scott Rueck, told her it generally takes six years for a turnaround.
But then Barnes sold her vision to some key players — Sam Thomas, Aari McDonald, and Cate Reese, UA’s first McDonald’s All-American — and the Wildcats grew quickly as a program. Arizona will host Idaho State on Thursday in the first round of the WNIT. The game tips off at 6:30 p.m. at McKale Center.
Barnes said the tournament suits her team well.
“Long-term benefits for us to play in the WNIT is a chance to play in more games,” Barnes said. “So I think instead of playing one or two (NCAA Tournament) games and being a low seed, for us having a chance to possibly play six games or three, four, five … I think it just gives us more experience in postseason play.”
Arizona should be ready. A grueling season in the Pac-12 has prepared them for anything. The Wildcats won a Pac-12 Tournament game against USC only to fall to Oregon, the regular-season champion, in the quarterfinals. The loss came one week after Arizona played the Ducks and highly ranked Oregon State at home.
“The last four or five games against really good teams we lost, but we were playing our best basketball,” Barnes said. “For us, where we’re at, just kind of being on the cusp of something special with a young team, I think the WNIT is a great thing. I remember what it was for us when I was in college. It was a pivotal point in Arizona women’s basketball.”
The Wildcats hit many milestones on their journey to the WNIT this season. They mounted an 11-game winning streak, beat two ranked teams — Arizona State and Cal — and won 12 more games this season than last season. Players noticed the progress. For Thomas, it was on Jan. 27, when the Wildcats lost to UCLA 98-93 in three overtimes.
“It was tough coming home from the loss and just knowing that we were right there with them. Not necessarily the thing ‘Oh we lost, we’re going to make the postseason play,’ but we have the ability and talent to give teams a run for their money and really try to go for postseason play,” she said.
It hit McDonald a few days later, after UA lost to ASU in Tempe.
“Coach Barnes talked to us at the end of the game. She was like ‘I don’t want to tell you guys or put pressure on you, but you really have the chance to make postseason, whether it’s NCAA or NIT.’ I kind of knew then,” McDonald said.
Getting ready in two days to play in a tournament where only one game is guaranteed can be difficult — especially for a squad that hasn’t been there before. The Wildcats will lean on McDonald, Dominque McBryde and Tee Tee Starks — all have played in the NCAA Tournament — and Reese, who has big-game experience.
Barnes is taking an approach that should help, as well. Since last week, they have been focusing on just getting better and changing up practice — the things they can control.
“The first thing for us because we don’t have a lot of depth is just short practices — short and intense. So, that’s the focus right now,” Barnes said. “(Who we are) playing — we just found out (Monday) night, so two days to practice is a really fast turnaround. I couldn’t say to the coaches, ‘I need the scouts and stuff right now.’
“But I think for us we’re not really changing much of what we do. I think that’s (where) we’ve done a good job this year. We have an identity. We may have to adjust small things, but we’re going to do what we do and then make people adjust to what we do — versus us adjusting every game. I just don’t think we have the personnel or the IQ to do that with a young team. So we do what we do, we’re going to do it well and then we’re going to work on certain things so we’re prepared and not surprised.
“I just think we’re sticking to our concepts and just getting better. That was my goal all week, because I had no idea who were going to play.”
Rematch between Wildcats, Bengals
The Wildcats played Idaho State (20-10) in their regular-season opener, and won 71-46. It was a long time ago.
“I looked at their roster to see who they were and was like, ‘Wait, we’ve played these people before,’” Thomas said.
The Wildcats will be watching film over the next few days to reacquaint themselves with Idaho State.
The early report?
“They are very different than the teams we’ve played for the last couple of (weeks), or the last month,” Barnes said. “We guard a lot of on-ball teams in the Pac-12 who really spread you out and have great shooters. They are really different. They are smaller, they cut a lot, back screens. So just different, so working on concepts we can be successful in.”
Getting support from others in Pac-12
Arizona is the only Pac-12 team in the WNIT, while six teams are playing in the NCAA Tournament. Barnes said she received congratulatory messages from her peers when the Wildcats made it.
“I got a text from (Cal coach) Lindsay (Gottlieb): ‘Go win it all,’” Barnes said. “I think the Pac-12 does a really good job. We support each other. We want the Pac-12 to stay great. We’re not saying we’re trying to get the top. We believe we’ve arrived. We think we are at the top. Now the next step for the league is getting seven teams in (NCAAs) next year.”
Barnes is proud of her team and what they’ve accomplished so far. But the Wildcats have loftier goals, starting with winning the WNIT.
“I’m proud about it, it’s almost been a decade for the postseason and that’s a long time. So I’m proud we were able to do that,” said Barnes. “And I think the city has been waiting for it. Our players have worked hard to get to that point. It’s a good thing for women’s basketball here.”