For the first time in a long time, fans in Tucson are buzzing about women’s basketball.
A championship — in this case, Arizona’s WNIT title — will do that.
“For us, it’s a great way to go into the offseason,” coach Adia Barnes said. “It’s tremendous momentum for recruiting. And a lot of good things are happening.”
As Barnes and the Wildcats head into a shortened offseason, there are many questions about next season.
1. Will the fans come back?
During the regular season, UA averaged 2,200 fans per game. More than 5,000 showed up for the first Pac-12 game of the season against Arizona State.
Then the postseason came around. More people packed McKale Center each round, culminating in a sellout crowd of 14,644 for the WNIT title game against Northwestern.
“I think you can count on your hand — in the country — how many programs have that,” Barnes said. “So I think that’s a pretty good thing. Says a lot about Arizona and the basketball here.”
Barnes said the Wildcats are already well ahead of last year when it comes to season ticket sales. Barnes said her team will continue to “stay out in the community.”
2. How will depth help?
The Wildcats had just 10 available players this season. Aari McDonald and Sam Thomas were asked to log a lot of time, and both averaged more than 34 minutes per game. McDonald played 50 minutes in a triple-overtime loss to UCLA, and Thomas played 47 in a double-overtime loss to Oregon State.
Five players are scheduled to join the UA’s roster next season, and Barnes said she may add a few transfers.
“Depth is important. And the style we play having more depth will make us better,” she said. “Because I think you can play better for 32 minutes versus I don’t think you are going to play every possession when you play 38. It is human nature and I think it’s hard physiologically.”
3. What will Cate Reese, Bryce Nixon and Semaj Smith do next?
Arizona’s three freshmen played well in the postseason. To make the leap from the WNIT to the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need to keep developing.
“We’re not doing our job as coaches if we’re not developing,” said Barnes.
Barnes expects soon-to-be sophomores Reese, Nixon and Smith to be stronger. Barnes said Nixon will be better defensively and have more consistency with her 3-point shooting. Smith is working on a go-to move.
“A mid-line move that can finish around the rim,” said Barnes. “Not the fade-away jumper — that’s the shot she likes. But a strong go-to move, finishing better inside, catching the ball better, being able to hit a 15-footer. Those are the things she’s going to work on. And I think you’ll see a better Semaj, because you’ll see a more confident Semaj.”
Then there’s Reese. The first McDonald’s All-American in program history led the team in rebounding and finished second in scoring.
“She has to become more versatile. She’s got to improve and have a go-to move. Not always settle for fade-aways,” Barnes said. “She has to step away and shoot a consistent 3 and that’s how her game will have to evolve. … For her to be all-Pac-12 and All-American she’s got to play like that.”
4. Can Aari McDonald repeat this dominant season?
Not much could stop McDonald this season. Barnes thinks she will be even more dominant next season, but it may not look quite the same. Simply put, Arizona’s star guard won’t be asked to — and won’t have to — do as much every game.
“I do think her scoring will go down, because we’ll have more balance and that’s what I want,” Barnes said. “But I think she will still have good numbers because her defense creates so much offense — gets steals and makes plays. That’s just what she does and she’s going to play minutes here. I think … her efficiency will go up. She won’t have to take so many end-of-shot-clock 3s. She won’t have to take so many step-back-after-10-dribble 3s, she’ll get more 1-2 step, open 3s.”