It didn’t take Adia Barnes long to acknowledge that this upcoming season is going to look different.
There are a lot of new things — players, a deep post presence, shooters, a championship mindset and more national attention.
For most of the country, the Wildcats’ run to the national championship game came out of nowhere.
Now, UA is on the radar and teams know that Arizona is a tough out. Barnes recognizes they are officially “the hunted.” Having a target on their backs is a challenge that she relishes, especially with this year’s squad — one she ranks at the top of her six seasons as head coach at Arizona.
“I think (it’s) the best core we’ve had as far as culture and fit and all everything, so I’m excited,” Barnes said at Friday’s Media Day at McKale Center. “I am extremely excited for this year. I know the expectations are really high but I’m excited for all the momentum we have and I’m excited for the chance for us to play in front of a crowd.
“Last year didn’t feel like we got the real thing. This year to be able to play in front of a true, McKale crowd is going to be really exciting.
“I think we have a lot of talent. I’m not going to make any promises as to how we’ll be or where we’re going to finish but I think that we have a chance to be really good. I think what you’ll see is we have a lot of people, but we have a lot more depth.
“We score in different ways, and we have a lot more growth inside. That’s something that we haven’t had here at Arizona so I’m really excited to see what this season will hold.”
This season will be the first without one key player — Aari McDonald. She turned professional in the spring after being drafted by the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. She is now playing overseas for Uni Gyor in Hungary.
The big question is how do you replace the best player in program history?
“Aari was a great player here. Aari did so many amazing things for this program, but we all have to step up,” Barnes said. “We are going to lose like 21 points a game. I’m not saying ‘Cate (Reese), you have to score 21 more points a game,’ I’m saying, ‘what can we do as a team to get better?’ To me, we’ll be a really good team with balance. …
“I think it’s my goal to get four or five players in double-digit scoring. If we can do that, if Sam (Thomas) can get 2-3-4 more points, Cate can take 3 or4 more points, Koi (Love) can come in, Taylor (Chavez), different people can step up. I think we fill that void.
“I think we are just going to look different because Aari was so fast — she was just everywhere. But, it’s not always bad. I think it’s just different ways to put things together. … Is everybody going to say, ‘Oh without her All-American what are they going to do?’ To me that’s fine. That’s the competitive part and I’m not afraid of a challenge. Now, how am I going to manufacture it for us to be successful? That’s my job.
“We’ve got to figure it out. And I think that we will. I think people are excited for the opportunity to be able to step up. That’s what I see, and I already see a lot of things as far as we’re sharing the ball really well, we’re talking. I think that we have a chance to be really successful in what we do. Now defensively we might look different, we might not.”
No extra pressure to win it all
The goal is always the same at the beginning of the season: Win a national championship. The Wildcats came within the slightest of margins — a one-point loss to Stanford in the title game — of achieving that goal last year. Barnes said it was a “privilege of blessing” to have played in the game, yet it doesn’t end there.
“Now we get to work harder,” Barnes said. “I think the challenge is we are the target. We are going to draw more crowds here. We’re going to draw more crowds on the road. Everybody’s talking about us, but I don’t feel pressure because it’s got to do our job. … I think our job is just to get better because we really hadn’t done anything, because we didn’t win. Coming in second, you don’t get a medal for a second. Yeah, it was great getting there but it’s more meaningful if you win and we didn’t win it. We really haven’t done anything yet in my opinion, so our goal is to win it.”
Taking the next step in recruiting
Barnes said there is more excitement for the program on the recruiting trail these days last spring’s title run. However, it may be taking a little more time for the high school recruits to take that leap. Barnes has two 5-stars for the Class of 2022 in Maya Nnaji and Kailyn Gilbert. She hopes to have three more locked in by the end of the month.
“I’m not seeing the dividends like I thought,” Barnes said. “I really thought it would lead to some other big signings but when I talked to my friends and who have won championships, they really saw it the following year, so I’m waiting for that. I’m going against like UConn, NC State, Stanford for all the best of the best. It’s the best kids in the country and there’s only a few of them, and they’re really heavily recruited so I think that’s challenging.
“We’re at that next step, but we’re not quite there because we haven’t sustained it yet. That’s just the reality. … We’re not going after just anybody, we have our top five. And if we don’t get them, we’ll just wait. We won’t go for the second or third tier. We have the ones that we want.”
Barnes said more than 5,000 season tickets — the most in program history — have been sold. She is challenging the Tucson community to average 10,000 fans per game. “I want this environment to be really tough to play in. I want it to be one of the hardest places in the country,” Barnes said. “I think the fans will be excited, so hopefully COVID will slow down some more, so we get people comfortable to come to games.”
Cate Reese will be playing a “super” senior year in 2022-23 season, as everyone earned an extra year of eligibility last season for playing through the pandemic.
Barnes said UA will have an improved team across the board from rebounding to shooting and strength inside — and more individual versatility. “We have a lot of players who can play a lot of positions which I like because then if we want to be a better defensive team we can go smaller, if we want to be a little bigger to match up with the big teams now like we can,” she said. “ In the past we couldn’t do that and I think that we were exploited a little bit in tournament. And because when they started to kind of pound the ball inside in the championship game, we had a tough time. I don’t think we’ll have that problem now.”