For three weeks last spring during the WNIT run, the Arizona Wildcats captured the imagination of the Tucson community.

As the fanbase got bigger with each game culminating with a sellout for the championship game, the players grew even more determined to win it all.

After the Wildcats dominated their opponents and won the WNIT in April, Aari McDonald said: “The best is yet to come.”

What exactly that looks like is yet to be determined, but the anticipation is real heading into Tuesday’s season opener against North Dakota at 6:30 p.m. at McKale Center.

Season ticket demand rocketed during the offseason, and the Pac-12 coaches and media selected the Wildcats to finish sixth in the conference.

Charlie Creme from ESPN included Arizona at No. 19 in his preseason Top 25.

McDonald was selected to the preseason Anne Meyers Drysdale award watch list for top shooting guards and All-Pac-12 preseason team. Her teammate, Cate Reese, was named to the Katrina McClain Award watch list for the nation’s top power forward.

After her team routed Eastern New Mexico 85-38 in an exhibition game, showing a faster pace and deeper bench, head coach Adia Barnes said the team is “just more complete.”

“We have more balance, more weapons,” Barnes said. “We always had a fun style of play, but now it will be more fun to watch Aari play now that we have more. Everyone can shoot off the bench, too. It makes us so much harder to guard.”

The bench now has nine players ready to sub and give the starters a little more rest than they’ve seen in the past. And it’s going to help a lot. Players will have fresher legs and will be ready for key situations late in the game. Minutes matter.

Sam Thomas has played a total of 2,353 minutes as a Wildcat in two seasons and in those 67 total games she has averaged the most minutes played (35.1 minutes) of any Wildcat in Arizona history.

Senior Lucia Alonso has played 2,769 minutes in her Wildcat career (averaging nearly 30 minutes per game) and is on pace to play the fifth-most minutes in school history. That’s a lot of minutes.

Last season McDonald averaged nearly 36 minutes per game and Thomas averaged 34.

To really understand how these extra minutes impact them, look back at the 65-60, double-overtime loss to highly-ranked Oregon State at the end of the year. Of the total 50 game minutes, Dominique McBryde played all 50, McDonald played 48 and Thomas was in there for 47.

“(Now) we can play harder and deeper,” Barnes said. “It makes a big difference when you can rest people two, three, four, even five minutes.”

Everyone on the bench can shoot. In the exhibition game, all 12 who played had marks in scoring and every newcomer — Amari Carter, Sevval Gul, Mara Mote, Helena Pueyo, Tara Manumaluega and Birna Benonysdottir hit a 3. The Wildcats were 15 of 33 from the 3-point arc.

Pueyo was 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, and also filled the stat sheet with three assists, two steals and one big block. Barnes said you’ll see more of this from everyone.

“She shared the ball and you’ll see more of that,” Barnes said “I’m excited. I think you’ll see better team basketball. We have no selfish people...”We want to share the ball. We want to drive and kick. You may have a good shot and your teammate has a great shot I expect that to be a pass.”

Rim shots

  • Shaina Pellington is competing with Team Canada in FIBA’s Olympic Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament on Nov.14-17 in Edmonton, Alberta. This is the first step in the new process for making the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo next summer. If Canada makes it past this round, they compete again in February. Pellington is one of four non-professionals players to make the team.
  • The Wildcats held their first Future Cats session Sunday at the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium. The sessions include skill development and fundamentals for boys and girls in second through eighth grades—taught by Wildcats staff and players. Participants also receive a T-shirt and a pizza party at the last clinic. Four more sessions remain—November 30, December 19, January 7 and February 12. For more information contact Bri Felix at 520-621-4014 or brilix@email.arizona.edu.
  • ESPNW included Aari McDonald on its Top 25 players list released Monday. She sits at No. 12. The list has Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu at No. 1, with Oregon teammates Ruthy Hebard (5) and Satou Sabally (8). In total there are nine Pac-12 players on the list. Here’s what Graham Hays had to say about McDonald: “McDonald is next in a line that spans the likes of Kelsey Plum, Kelsey Mitchell and Megan Gustafson to see how far a prolific scorer can take a team. Gustafson, in fact, was one of only two players to average more points per game a season ago than McDonald, who begins this season as the nation’s leading returning scorer. She takes a high volume of shots for Arizona, but her numbers aren’t merely the product of that. She’s an efficient scorer who could approach Plum-like efficiency if she sharpens her 3-point touch a little.”