There is plenty to like about the Arizona women’s basketball team this season.
At 8-1, it’s off to its best start since 2011-12, and is currently riding a seven-game winning streak, its longest in 15 years.
Fleet-footed point guard Aari McDonald has been virtually unguardable, averaging 25.7 points per game, the second-highest mark in the country.
Freshman Cate Reese is averaging a double-double, living up to her billing as the program’s first McDonald’s All-American.
Defensive ace Sam Thomas has scored in double figures in two straight games, looking like a reliable third option on the wing.
The positives go on and on for a program that has not enjoyed a winning season since 2010-11, but they all come with one major caveat: Arizona’s competition has been subpar.
The Wildcats’ strength of schedule ranks 241st in the country, and they have yet to play a single major-conference team. Their lone loss came against Loyola Marymount, from the West Coast Conference.
“I can say we’ve been playing some cupcake teams,” McDonald admitted.
Which means Arizona could be in for a rude awakening when conference play begins next week. There are no cupcakes in the Pac-12. Far from it. The league boasts five ranked teams and is the top conference in the nation, according to the Median BennettRank.
“The Pac-12, the talent is different,” said McDonald, a redshirt sophomore who began her career at Washington. “We’re going to face some All-Americans, some great basketball players.”
“Definitely quickness, definitely size are the two biggest factors,” added senior forward Destiny Graham.
So does coach Adia Barnes worry that her team isn’t ready for that kind of challenge, knowing its non-conference schedule has been a cakewalk? After all, UA’s average margin of victory is 27 points, the sixth-highest mark in the country.
“I don’t feel like that because, yes, some teams we’ve been stronger than, but I also think we’ve made some teams look really bad,” said the UA coach. “Last year, it was a very similar non-conference and we weren’t as successful. So I think it shows how much better we’ve gotten.”
To Barnes’ point, the Wildcats only mustered a 4-8 record in non-conference play last season, dropping home games to Long Beach State and San Diego State, teams that UA beat on the road this season.
And while Arizona’s opponents might not be the tallest or most talented, Barnes likes what they have offered — like the way Idaho State’s motion offense tested UA’s defensive discipline or how Long Beach’s array of zone defenses made Arizona work for quality shots.
“I wouldn’t say (they are) cupcakes because last year we didn’t beat these teams,” Barnes said. “Are they as strong as Pac-12 teams? No, but you don’t want that in your non-conference. You don’t want to be unsuccessful in non-conference, get to the conference and then get beat up. So for us, it’s playing teams that we can have success against but also teams that we’re challenged. As you see the program grow, you’ll see a better non-conference schedule.”
For Barnes, confidence is a must-have in basketball and the Wildcats were lacking it heading into Pac-12 play last season, evidenced by their 2-16 conference record.
This year, though, their dominance in non-conference play has them oozing with it, giving them a real reason to believe they can compete with their Pac-12 counterparts.
But whether or not they actually can still remains to be seen. They know they’ve seen nothing yet.
“Hopefully we can stick together and keep doing our thing, getting better each game and it’ll transfer to Pac-12,” McDonald said.