The calendar has flipped to 2019, so here are some New Year’s resolutions for each Arizona Wildcats team.
Men’s basketball: Make the NCAA Tournament
This would normally be a low bar for the Wildcats, who have only missed the NCAA Tournament twice since 1985, but everyone knew this was going to be a transitional year since the roster isn’t as loaded as usual thanks to the federal investigation into college basketball.
Right now Arizona (9-4) has an uphill battle to make the Big Dance, seeing that it already has four losses and only one or two quality wins as it enters conference play.
Still, as underwhelming as the Wildcats have been, the rest of the Pac-12 has been equally disappointing. Zero teams currently rank inside the Top 25. There is not one Pac-12 team that is definitively better than Arizona, which means anything can happen in league play and the conference tournament.
The Pac-12 appears to be a three-bid league at best, though, so the Wildcats have to avoid as many slip-ups as possible. Five or six losses in the Pac-12 could be too many to earn an at-large bid.
Women’s basketball: Be competitive in the Pac-12
Year three of the Adia Barnes rebuild is off to a terrific start. The Wildcats are 11-1 and have won 10 straight, tying the longest winning streak in school history.
Redshirt sophomore point guard Aari McDonald, who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, has been outstanding on both ends of the court, leading the Pac-12 in scoring, proving to be unguardable off the dribble and a menace on defense, spearheading a UA defense that ranks No. 1 in the conference.
The question is: can Arizona keep this up? Its non-conference schedule was one of the weakest in the country and the Pac-12 is arguably the top league in the nation, featuring five ranked teams.
That is a major shift in competition, and the Pac-12 has eviscerated Arizona lately, going 29-7 against the Wildcats in Barnes’ first two seasons at the helm. In fact, the Wildcats have not won more than five conference games in a season since 2010-11.
The next step in the rebuild is proving they can regularly compete in the Pac-12 by finishing close to .500, and so far things look promising. The Wildcats beat No. 17 ASU, 51-39, in their Pac-12 opener, their first victory over a ranked team since the 2015-16 season.
Football: Improve on defense
If Arizona is going to make a bowl game in Kevin Sumlin’s second year, it has to make seismic improvement defensively before it can even begin to worry about its offense and quarterback Khalil Tate recapturing his old form.
The 5-7 Wildcats finished dead last in the Pac-12 in pass defense (269.5 YPG), 10th in scoring defense (32.6 PPG), 10th in total defense (432.0 YPG), ninth in sacks (19), and tied for ninth in takeaways (15).
The good news: Arizona returns nine starters, including defensive tackle PJ Johnson, cornerback Jace Whittaker and star linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II, and is adding some more size along the defensive line in the form of junior college talent.
The bad news: Those returning starters have yet to prove they can be a formidable unit, plus defensive coordinator Marcel Yates is returning and it’s hard to imagine Arizona making any significant changes schematically, which, at this juncture, seem to be necessary.
Softball: Develop an elite pitcher
Mike Candrea says it all the time: success in softball stems from the circle.
Arizona’s pitching simply was not good enough in 2018 for it to make a deep postseason run. The Wildcats posted a 1.97 ERA, ranking fifth in the Pac-12, behind Washington (1.19), Oregon (1.21), Arizona State (1.41), and UCLA (1.85), who all finished ahead of the UA in the standings and reached the Women’s College World Series.
Arizona, whose season ended at the hands of UCLA in Super Regionals, lacked an elite pitcher. No. 1 starter Taylor McQuillin posted a 1.68 ERA in 242 innings. No. 2 starter Alyssa Denham logged a 1.85 ERA in 106 innings.
Here is how those numbers compared to the Pac-12’s top arms:
- Gabbie Plain, Washington — 1.04 ERA
- Miranda Elish, Oregon — 1.20 ERA
- G Juarez, ASU — 1.22 ERA
- Taran Alvelo, Washington — 1.30 ERA
- Rachel Garcia, UCLA — 1.30 ERA
- Megan Kleist, Oregon — 1.32 ERA
Juarez (transfer), Elish (transfer) and Kleist (transfer) are no longer with their respective teams, so Arizona has a real shot to usurp ASU and Oregon, but that will still require McQuillin or Denham to take a step forward and/or star freshman Marissa Schuld to make an immediate impact on the rubber.
And not only would improved pitching help UA contend in the ultra-competitive Pac-12, but it would also give the Wildcats a solid chance of reaching the WCWS for the first time since 2010. They return most of their heavy hitters from a lineup that led the Pac-12 in homers (72).
Soccer: Find a goalkeeper
For the first time in five seasons, Arizona will not have Lainey Burdett manning the net. Replacing her will be a daunting task. The four-year starter departs as Arizona’s all-time shutouts leader and a two-time all-conference selection.
Also: the Wildcats, who went 13-6-2 last season, do not have a single goalkeeper with game experience. They return soon-to-be sophomores Makayla Aman and Kendyll Humphreys, and add incoming freshman and Tucson native Hope Hisey.
Burdett not only made big saves in a sport where games are often decided by one goal, she was a vocal leader for the Wildcats, an invaluable quality for a goalkeeper. That is usually a trait that blooms with experience, so it remains to be seen if UA’s unseasoned goalies have it.
If there is any saving grace it’s that, not counting Burdett, Arizona is returning all but one starter, giving them a veteran core that can help nullify its inexperience in net.
As far as who will take over for Burdett, Humphreys is probably the frontrunner. Even though she didn’t play as a freshman, she was designated as the No. 2 goalie during the NCAA Tournament when rosters are crunched to 22 players. Aman did not dress.
Humphreys, who battled a knee injury before her freshman season, was rated as a three-star prospect by TopDrawerSoccer, and played for the Scottsdale Blackhawks with whom she won a National League championship in 2017 and 2018.
Arizona originally thought Meredith Reinhardt would be Burdett’s successor, but the junior transferred prior to the 2018 season, landing at St. John’s where she made 16 starts.
Baseball: Win away from home
The Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament by the slimmest of margins last year, and they can probably point to their road record as the reason why. Arizona went 23-6 in the friendly confines of Hi Corbett Field, but trudged to a 10-13 record on the road and a 1-3 record at neutral sites.
In the end, they finished below .500 in the Pac-12, a no-no for the selection committee.
The Wildcats will be tested early and often away from home in 2019. Arizona has three-game road series against Houston and Penn State in 2019, plus single road games against Rice, San Diego State and Grand Canyon in addition to its Pac-12 slate.
Also: the Wildcats’ final six games of the season are away from Hi Corbett.
Volleyball: Stay healthy
Arizona lost six players to concussions throughout the 2018 season, something longtime coach Dave Rubio said he had never seen before.
One of those players was star outside hitter Kendra Dahlke, who also missed a couple weeks of conference play with a foot injury that was initially feared to be an ACL or Achilles tear. (Arizona caught a rare break there.)
No. 2 outside hitter Paige Whipple was affected by the injury bug as well. The sophomore suffered an umbilical hernia in the spring, then a concussion in the fall, which hindered her development.
For much of the season, the Wildcats scrambled to find viable lineup combinations, as Rubio’s selection of players was constantly changing.
Somehow, Arizona managed to finish 22-11 overall and 11-9 in the arduous Pac-12, earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament after missing the postseason in 2017.
The Wildcats were healthy at the end of the season — sans outside hitter Elizabeth Shelton who missed nearly the entire season with a concussion — and players and coaches talked about how all the injuries made them a better team entering the postseason, capable of handling adversity.
Unfortunately, a lack of cohesion seemed to catch up to them, and they were swept in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Missouri in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Aside from Dahlke, the Wildcats return nearly every key contributor in 2019, so injuries might be the only thing that can prevent them from making another run to the postseason — and it is hard to imagine they will have worse luck in that regard than they did in 2018.