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Why are top recruits flocking to Arizona women’s basketball?

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Four- and five-star recruits are flocking to a women’s basketball program that has struggled for a decade. Why?

Freshmen Semaj Smith, Cate Reese, and Bryce Nixon after their first workout at Arizona
Photo via @ArizonaWBB on Twitter

When Adia Barnes walked onto campus as a freshman in 1994, the Arizona women’s basketball team had never been to the NCAA Tournament.

Then-head coach Joan Bonvicini was three years into building the program after a successful stint at Long Beach State that included two trips to the Final Four.

Just as he did when he hired Lute Olson, then-UA athletic director Cedric Dempsey made a splash with his choice to lead an Arizona basketball program. Bonvicini’s program would make a splash with Barnes leading the way on the court.

It seemed like Arizona had nowhere to go but up. While there were no Final Fours, the program reached its first Sweet Sixteen at the end of Barnes’ senior season. That legacy was continued by players like Dee-Dee Wheeler and Shawntinice Polk.

The Arizona women were climbing, and the fans were right there with them. They came to McKale Center in numbers large enough to put them well inside the top 50 for attendance year in and year out, usually trailing only Stanford in conference attendance numbers.

In 2004-05, the Arizona faithful were rewarded when the team ended the season tied with perennial conference champs Stanford for the regular season title.

Then came the terrible day in September of 2005, when the program was rocked by Polk’s death. Gone was an incredible young woman with an infectious smile and charisma off the court that was the perfect complement to her dominance on it.

Since that 2004-05 season, Arizona has only had one winning campaign. Both Bonvicini and her successor, Niya Butts, struggled to produce wins, the fans stopped coming out in large numbers, and recruiting suffered.

Now, Barnes is not just trying to recreate the initial success her coach had, she’s trying to exceed and sustain it. Her players want to do the same on the court, making Arizona matter again and breaking records.

“Whenever I first came here, Adia said no one’s broken her records yet and that I would be the person to do that,” top recruit Cate Reese said. “I do have the potential if I work really hard, so I’m just really excited and it really is motivation to push yourself to do better.”

Improvement starts with bringing in players like Reese, who are committed to building a winning culture.

As the first female McDonald’s All-American to come to Arizona, she is the player who shoulders most of the expectations. Reese has the character and drive necessary for a player who will be a building block of Arizona’s future. Using the program’s marketing slogan, Barnes says that Reese and her new teammates are “Made for It.”

“You can’t make someone ultra-competitive. You can’t make someone hungry with that fire,” Barnes explained. “I think you have that or you don’t. And that reminds me, I had that in college. I wasn’t the greatest player, but you weren’t going to outwork me and I think that’s what she has and that’s why I fell in love with her during recruiting just the first time I saw her.

“So, I think she’s hungry. She wants to break my records and I love that. I want her to. She wants to be great. She’s not content with just being mediocre. She wants to win, she wants to be a part of what we’re building and that’s one of the reasons why she came. She could’ve gone to a lot of schools, so that says a lot about her character and not everybody is made for that. And that’s why we say these kids are made for it. They want to do it, and it’s hard. It’s not for everybody.”

Last year, Barnes brought in a strong class headlined by four-star forward Sam Thomas. Coming out of high school, all of the rising sophomores were ranked in the top 60 at their positions by ESPN recruiting analysts.

This year, Reese leads a class ranked No. 5 in the country by and 14th by HoopGurlz. The question is: Why Arizona? Why are four- and five-star recruits now flocking to Tucson to play for a program that has struggled for over a decade?

For the three freshmen who are already on campus and working out, the answer to that question comes down to comfort, future plans and the desire to build something of their own on the court.

Prior to visiting Arizona, heralded center Semaj Smith told Walter Villa of espnW that she wanted to play at a school where she felt close to her teammates. Not only did she find that at Arizona, but she also found family connections. Smith’s godmother, Crystal Givens, played with Barnes during their professional careers.

The family ties are even closer for Reese, whose sister Ali was a freshman guard on the team last year. The two played together at Cypress Woods (TX) High School and hoped to attend college together.

“She’s helped me out a lot. She’s given me some things that I should already be prepared for. And we’re really close, so the fact that we get to be here together is even better,” Reese said.

The coaching staff and fit were important to in-state point guard Bryce Nixon, as well. She has spoken in the past of her close ties to Barnes. While Nixon feels that she “can’t go wrong with the Pac-12,” staying close to home wasn’t high on her list of requirements when she was being recruited. She said that she just wanted to find the place with the best fit, and she thinks she succeeded in that.

“I like the idea of building a program and I loved the coaching staff,” Nixon said.

The on-court accolades have been topics of conversation since this class signed, but Barnes found players who want to challenge themselves in the classroom, as well. For Smith, the “student” part of student-athlete was as important as the “athlete” part. She was seeking a school with strong programs in healthcare and the biological sciences to prepare her for medical school.

“It has a hospital on campus,” she said. “My major’s Care, Health & Society. I want to be an orthopedic surgeon.”

Reese, Smith and Nixon have been joined by sophomore Marlee Kyles in summer workouts. Fellow freshmen Shalyse Smith and Valeria Trucco will arrive at the end of the summer. The commitment to putting in the time, even when not required to do so, is part of the culture Barnes wants to instill.

“We’ve only had one practice so far with the freshmen, but I think what was really integral about this, about practicing before [everyone is back] is that we can practice with the freshmen. They can kind of get their feet wet a little bit before all the returners come back. So I think that they’re just adding more talent,” Barnes said.

“Marlee’s here for the summer, not because she has to, because she wants to be, and she wants to get better. So all those things we talked about—culture shifts—it’s evident, it’s happening and I’m just excited. I’m excited for it: to turn the page, and a new year, and be a lot better than last year.”