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6 questions heading into Arizona women’s basketball season

There’s buzz around the program, but plenty of questions, too.

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Ryan Kelapire covered the six questions heading into Arizona men’s basketball season, so let’s see what unknowns the women are facing this season before they host their first exhibition Monday night against Eastern New Mexico.

Some of the same questions hovering around the men’s team are also relevant to the women. The major difference is that, unlike the men’s team, the women are flush with post players this season.

The team has a top freshman class joining some strong holdovers from Adia Barnes’ first couple of years and the end of the Niya Butts era. How will they all fit together?

1. How will the point guard position shake out?

Last season, Lucia Alonso led the team in assists with 3.3 per game while starting all 30 games and playing a sophomore record 1,088 minutes. Her assists were up from the 2.4 per game that she dished out her freshman season.

As a junior, Alonso has much more competition at the spot. She’s joined by Washington transfer Aarion McDonald and highly-regarded freshman Bryce Nixon. McDonald has the inside track on the starting point guard position, but there will still be plenty of minutes for Alonso and Nixon.

McDonald was the No. 55 recruit out of high school. She was considered one of the best freshman point guards in the country during her single season as a Husky. She also has postseason experience, playing alongside Kelsey Plum as Washington marched to the Sweet Sixteen in 2017.

Nixon was a local star in Phoenix at Arcadia High. She earned 5A All-Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior while scoring 18.6 ppg on 61% shooting from inside the arc and 30% from beyond. She dished out 5.3 apg and swiped the ball from the opposition 4 times per contest. At 5’10”, her size is considered one of her greatest assets, allowing her to get her shot off and bother smaller guards on the defensive end.

Both Nixon and Alonso have good shots and experience as scorers, with Alonso shooting almost 40% from 3-point range last year. Even if McDonald takes over at point guard as expected, both of the other point guards are capable of producing at the off-guard position.

2. What will Arizona’s inside game look like?

Last year, Arizona’s depth issues were especially noticeable on the inside. There were only four players listed as forwards—and zero centers—on the 2017-18 squad. Of those four, one was Sam Thomas, who played inside but was projected as a wing out of high school and will be moving to that position this year according to Barnes. So, true interior play was difficult to come by.

This year, the roster has seven players listed as either forwards or centers, making Arizona much more competitive when it’s time to bang against the bigger teams in the conference.

Since Thomas is unlikely to play inside as much this season, the top returning true interior player is senior Destiny Graham. Graham started all 30 games last season. However, she was called on to go against players much bigger and stronger, limiting her effectiveness on both ends of the court. Graham averaged 8.1 points and 6.3 rebounds last season.

Kiana Barkhoff, now listed as a center, also returns for her sophomore year. Barkhoff made 22 appearances last season averaging 5.9 minutes per game. She had 15 blocks in only 130 total minutes played, making her biggest contributions on the defensive end.

Graham and Barkhoff will be surrounded by talented newcomers this season. The freshman class has Cate Reese, Shalyse Smith, and Semaj Smith. Purdue transfer Dominque McBryde gets to play after sitting out her transfer year.

As the highest-rated recruit in Arizona history, fans are anxious to see Reese on the floor. With her talent and her will, that’s likely to come to pass sooner rather than later. Barnes believes that in addition to talent, Reese’s competitiveness and toughness will be huge assets for the Wildcats both this season and over the long term.

“One thing I love is Cate Reese,” Barnes said. “She’s such a fierce competitor. She came in, and she brings it. So, she’s diving over people. I think that that’s culturally what you want. You want eight of those or ten of those types of players. So, that’s why the culture takes time, but a couple of years ago we didn’t have anybody like that.”

Semaj Smith is a defensive force, while Shalyse Smith has a more offensive-focused game. McBryde was a strong rebounder and shot-blocker while at Purdue, skills Arizona desperately needs to improve.

3. How will Sam Thomas follow up on an outstanding freshman campaign?

Thomas was a star last season, leading all freshmen in the Pac-12 in rebounds, steals, blocks, and minutes, while ranking second among freshmen in scoring. Like Alonso, she played 1,088 minutes—the most ever for a freshman at Arizona.

The member of the 2018 All-Freshman team is excited to see what the team can do with the increased depth and talent. Her expectations for the program are straightforward, and not necessarily focused on herself.

Thomas thinks the addition of McDonald in games will have a huge impact on everyone’s performance, including her own.

“I have full trust in her,” Thomas said. “No matter what we’re doing, I know that she’s going to take care of it. And she can tell me what to do if I get flustered.”

As for her own responsibilities, Thomas believes she’ll have to take on more leadership this season because of the huge influx of freshmen. She’ll also have a different role in the flow of play.

“I’m not going to be down there as much battling with the big people,” Thomas said. “I’m going to be able to step outside a little bit and show what I can do from there.”

4. What constitutes success for this season?

While the fanbase is certainly excited about the trajectory of the program, what will the team need to do this season to maintain that excitement? What’s reasonable to expect them to do?

Arizona has not ended a season at or above .500 since the 2010-11 season when they went 21-12. That was their last postseason appearance, and it ended in a first-round WNIT loss to Utah State. The team hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2005, when they went out in the second round to LSU.

It’s certainly possible to go from 6-24 to a winning season. Arizona has had similar turnarounds in the past. That might not be enough to make the NCAAs, though.

The team is still very young and inexperienced. They will be facing more seasoned players in a conference that has gotten stronger since the last time the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament. How will they manage the expectations and desire to be better?

“I think we’re starting out really well,” Barnes said. “And I think what helps manage [expectations] is Aari, Tee Tee [Starks], and Dom have experience. So, they’re used to it. Right now, they kind of have a leadership role, but they had to sit back and they were anxious to play. So, I think that has helped settle a lot of people. We’re just taking one day at a time. I don’t think they feel like there’s tons of expectations because of last year.”

Barnes herself doesn’t seem to feel the pressure, either. Her initial expectations were for a lengthy rebuilding process implementing a new culture at Arizona.

“I realistically thought 5-6 years,” she said when asked how long she initially expected it to take to build a competitive program. “I mean, to truly be culturally, not only on the court. Because I knew I was going to be able to recruit good players, but just where the culture takes care of itself.

“It takes usually three or four years to get all the former players to graduate and get your own players in. So, this year, all but one player is a player that I recruited—they’re all my players, but that I actually actively recruited. So, next year it’s year four, and it’s finally your team. So, then it takes time. Cori Close told me at UCLA, it takes six years. And you don’t get the players you want if you don’t have the culture you want.”

The biggest part of that culture change has been getting everyone to play hard. Barnes said her biggest surprise when she got to Arizona was that there “wasn’t an expectation to just go hard all the time.” That change is what she is most surprised with this season so far.

An invitation to the WNIT would be a huge step up for the program, as far as on-the-court success. Will that be enough to continue growing the fanbase back to pre-2005 levels?

5. What’s the most likely starting lineup?

As of last week, Barnes said she didn’t know who would be starting. She also stated that the initial line-up wasn’t necessarily the final one. It could change after the first few games.

However, considering the comments made by Barnes and her players on the first day of fall practice, it’s possible that the team will go small to start the season. If that is the case, the lineup would likely look like this:

Point Guard: Aarion McDonald

Shooting Guard: Lucia Alonso

Wing: Sam Thomas

Forward: Cate Reese

Forward/Center: Dominique McBryde

Depending on the development of the freshmen, the Wildcats could also play a larger line-up with Bryce Nixon in place of Lucia Alonso and Semaj Smith at center in place of McBryde. They also have Tee Tee Starks and Graham to add to the mix. Of those four, Graham is the most likely to take a starting position.

Last season, opponents knew exactly what to expect simply because there was no one else available. This year, Arizona has options.

6. With her players and system finally in place, will Adia Barnes prove herself a great X-O coach as well as a great recruiter?

Barnes was hired at Arizona just days after Washington finished their Final Four season in 2016. She had served as the recruiting coordinator, as well as working with player development for the Huskies.

That experience in recruiting immediately carried over to Arizona. After bringing in Alonso and Bria Rice her first year, Barnes improved the talent and depth with her next two classes. In both 2017 and 2018, Barnes and her staff were able to bring in larger classes and more highly-rated players.

The 2017 class had Sam Thomas, whose play was worth the price of the ticket last season despite the team’s struggles. This season, Barnes had a blockbuster haul, bringing in the No. 5 class in the country according to Prospects Nation, including Arizona’s first female McDonald’s All American.

All five recruits in the 2018 class were ranked four or five stars by at least one of the recruiting services. Despite the fact that Valeria Trucco ultimately decided to stay in Italy and play professionally, Barnes and her staff have the kind of talented depth Arizona has seldom had. She already has a four-star recruit from Iceland on board for next year, as well.

Although the team went 14-16 her first season, the depth and talent issues Arizona faced after the end of the Butts era made it difficult to judge the in-game coaching of Barnes. This season, that should finally be over. The Wildcats will be young, but they are universally recognized as talented. The transition period is over. Barnes and her staff will have the opportunity to show their own skills.