SAN FRANCISCO — While escaping McKale Center with a triple-overtime win last season, UCLA coach Cori Close saw the future of the Arizona Wildcats.
For her and the rest of the Pac-12, that’s good, bad and maybe a little scary.
“I tell you, they earned our respect,” Close said.
Apparently, the Wildcats did the same all around the league after scaring not only the Bruins last season but also perennial powers Stanford (a two-point loss at Maples Pavilion) and Oregon State (a double-overtime loss at McKale) before going on to win the WNIT championship.
In voting by the league’s 12 coaches, UA was picked to finish sixth in the conference’s official preseason poll this season, the highest the Wildcats have been picked since 2005-06.
“It’s definitely a big jump,” standout UA guard Aari McDonald said. “That just shows how much our team has progressed, the players we’re getting (in recruiting), and it reflects on coach (Adia) Barnes as well.”
Last season, UA was picked to finish 10th and finished in a tie for eighth place with USC at 7-11. The Wildcats then beat the Trojans in the Pac-12 Tournament’s 8-9 game before losing to Final Four-bound Oregon in the quarterfinals.
Maybe that said something.
“Arizona was in the 8-9 game and they win the postseason WNIT? That’s incredible,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. “This season is going to be that same sort of depth. You’d better bring it or you’re going to be in trouble.”
In other words, it might be bad for Pac-12 opponents to face the Wildcats these days but good for the Pac-12 as a whole to see how they can represent.
But still, the Wildcats want more than to just give teams a scare and finish in the middle.
It isn’t enough to be picked sixth, and it won’t be enough to finish just sixth, either.
“It’s … all right,” UA standout Aari McDonald said of the poll. “I think that my team and I can finish higher. We have a completely different team this year, and I have that much confidence in our abilities to finish higher.”
Forward Tee Tee Starks, who joined McDonald and Barnes at Monday’s Pac-12 women’s media day at Pac-12 headquarters, said she honestly thought the preseason poll didn’t matter, pointing to last season as an example why.
“We were picked 10th and then we had the season that we had,” she said. “I don’t think it defines anything. We still have to go out and play basketball.”
That’s pretty much how Barnes said she viewed it, too.
“I don’t really get into a lot of that stuff because, regardless of where you’re picked, you’ve got to still go out and play, and (in the Pac-12) there’s really good teams,” Barnes said. “But I know where we need to be to try to make the tournament, and to be honest our goal is to make the tournament.
“Yes, winning the WNIT was fabulous, but now we want more, and you always want more after you’ve had some success.”
Still, as Close found out, the WNIT can help you get places. The Bruins won the 2014-15 WNIT and, since then, have hovered around the Top 10 and reached the Sweet 16 of every NCAA Tournament.
“We can really identify with the impact that has on a program,” Close said. “That was a huge turning point for us. It really spurred us on and taught us how to win.”
There’s another, big-picture benefit to the Wildcats’ success, and this one is also for everyone in the conference.
While the Pac-12 is as heavy at the top as ever — predicted top four finishers Oregon, Stanford, OSU and UCLA are all Final Four candidates — having up-and-coming teams such as Arizona draw fan interest is a long-term bonus.
Barnes became known for marketing the Wildcats via social media to ever-increasing fans, saying Monday with a grin that “it doesn’t take much to tweet,” and UA is now approaching the 3,000-mark in season ticket sales for this season.
“I just give Adia so much credit,” Close said. “Not only did she get her team playing their best basketball in March, but she rallied an entire community to get behind that team in a really special way. We all need to celebrate that because that’s growing our game and growing enthusiasm for the journey of women’s basketball.
“We’re excited for where that program is going. There’s a lot of attention given to the top of the conference, but the entire depth of our conference has risen, and Arizona is a big part of that. I think that’s a major story line in why our conference is the best in the country.”
• In his opening address at Monday’s media day, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott voiced opposition to the new California law that will allow college athletes to profit from their likenesses starting in 2023.
Scott said he didn’t think a state-by-state management would be good for college sports, that it could create unintended consequences in recruiting and that outside money would be given to athletes instead of athletics departments, which could in turn hurt the nonrevenue sports they support.
“Those of us that work in college sports understand (there are) a lot of flaws with this bill and the way it’s written,” Scott said.
• The Wildcats now have seven international players, including senior Lucia Alonso and freshman Helena Pueyo of Spain, but Barnes said her Italian husband and assistant coach, Salvo Coppa, knows enough Spanish to help explain things when needed.
“Also the great thing is our players are learning some words in their languages,” Barnes said. “Just for a cultural experience, we went to a Turkish restaurant when they first got here. There are things that are valuable that the players are learning, and how to embrace different cultures because that’s what America is. That’s what life is.”
• The Pac-12 will release its men’s preseason poll Tuesday morning in advance of its men’s media day. The Pac-12 Networks will host a preview show between noon and 3:15 p.m., while podium interviews will be streamed on the conference’s website starting at 10 a.m.