The Arizona Wildcats are right on track.
After shooting 32 percent from 3 last season, head coach Adia Barnes wanted to see that number rise to 36 percent this season. It’s needed if they hope to keep pace in a loaded Pac-12 Conference.
Well, through six games they are shooting 36.6 percent from distance—and still have room to grow.
“I think we can probably be 38 percent, I hope,” Barnes said. “And I hope it can stay that way.”
At 6-0 with an average scoring margin of 28.5, the Wildcats currently boast the 29th-best offensive efficiency in the country, more than 50 spots higher than last season.
Yes, that’s what happens when you make more 3s and have a fairly soft schedule, but it can also be explained by improved proficiency around the basket. Arizona has the eighth-best 2-point field goal percentage in the country, in part, because the improved 3-point shooting has created more space for point guard Aari McDonald and UA post players to operate in the lane.
McDonald’s field goal percentage alone is up from 45.2 percent to 55.8 this season (despite being one of the few players on the team to see her 3-point efficiency dip).
“It’s definitely helpful for us,” said forward Cate Reese, who is shooting 53 percent from the field after shooting 49 percent last year.
In the past, defenses would, as Barnes describes it, put “10 feet in the paint” and dare the Wildcats—mostly McDonald—to finish over outstretched arms or kick the ball out to the perimeter.
Now, defenses have to pick their poison. Either give McDonald more space to knife into the lane, or sag off the perimeter and be willing to concede open 3s to steady shooters.
“Even when they played man (last year), it looked like it was a zone,” Barnes said. “I remember when we played Stanford, everybody was in the key. They were like, ‘go ahead and shoot.’ And I think this year it’s just a little bit harder (to do that) and hopefully we’ll shoot the 3 as well as we’ve been... If we shoot the 3 consistently, I think it’s gonna be harder to guard Aari.”
What has led to the uptick in 3-point percentage? Freshmen like Tara Manumaleuga, Mara Mote and Helena Pueyo have made an immediate impact. That international trio is a combined 19 for 41 (.463) from behind the arc.
Pueyo, a silky smooth Spaniard, is 10 for 21. Her 8.5 points per game are fourth-most on the team.
“Her 3-point shot with her feet set is like a layup,” Barnes said.
Returners like Reese, Sam Thomas, and Dominique McBryde have improved too. Thomas is the most drastic example. The lanky lefty is 10 for 17 from 3, a scorching 58 percent, roughly 27 ticks better than last season.
“She is a 3-point shooter now,” Barnes said. “Before she could shoot the 3, but she wasn’t a 3-point shooter.”
Barnes believes Thomas’ development can be traced to heightened confidence—she is in her third year, after all—and a deeper bench that helps keep everyone fresh.
“We’re not asking Aari and Sam and Dominique and Cate to play 38 minutes a game, which you’re not going to be as good defensively or as efficient offensively if you do that,” Barnes said.
Arizona has also made some tweaks to its practices, incorporating an hour of skill work. Sometimes that means 30 minutes of 3-point shooting. It’s all timed and charted.
“Before, we did that a couple of days a week, but that’s really helped,” Barnes said. “I think it puts a little bit of pressure and just more accountability. I think it’s more effective than just going out and taking shots. We’re charting everything so you can see you if you’re first or 14th. So if you’re 14, you’re probably not gonna want to be 14th anymore.”
Arizona’s non-conference schedule is nowhere near as difficult as its Pac-12 slate, so it remains to be seen if the Wildcats can maintain this hot shooting against better competition.
But opposing defenses still tend to pack the paint the same way they did in conference play last year—only this time the Wildcats are making them pay.
“We’re seeing a lot of like zone-type man where everyone’s just staying in the paint, making us outshoot them to win the game,” Thomas said. “So I think that really helps us because that’s probably what teams in the Pac-12 are going to do. ... So it’s nice that we’re having teams now in non-conference do it, so we can prepare, practice and work on stuff in the games to really try and do it better.”
The Wildcats host UC Riverside on Friday at 4 p.m. MST.