When the No. 18 Arizona Wildcats put the finishing touches on their win over UC Santa Barbara on Sunday, they had already reached a historic milestone. Their 11-0 opening to the season was the best start to a season in school history. Their 17-game winning streak stretching back to last season is the longest active streak in the nation.
Those are the things that are easy to see. But what is the story behind the wins?
The Wildcats stand at No. 18 in the AP poll for the third straight week, and have moved to No. 18 in the USA Today/WBCA poll this week after sitting at No. 19 for a few weeks.
It’s not just the voters who see Arizona as a top-20 team, either. The analytics are in general agreement. Her Hoop Stats rates them as the No. 18 team in the country despite playing a rather weak schedule. BennettRank places them at No. 21 despite playing the 330th (of 351) schedule. Their only major-conference opponent was Texas, who the Wildcats routed 83-58 in Austin.
Head coach Adia Barnes is kind of over the schedule discussion simply because of how difficult the Pac-12 is. She also had difficulty finding teams willing to play an up-and-coming Arizona team this season.
“My first year, people were off the hook and now we’re having a tough time finding games,” Barnes said. “But it’s a good problem. But we will have tougher competition, but we won’t ever have eight ranked. We won’t play Mississippi State, UConn, Baylor. Like, we’re just not because I get those in the conference and that’s enough.”
Scheduling questions aside, how did the Wildcats get to 11-0? Of course, Aari McDonald has been crucial. Cate Reese has, too. But the Wildcats are more than their two stars.
The supporting cast enables Arizona to get through nights where McDonald doesn’t score over 20 points or Reese scores just two because they are a much deeper team this season. Their freshmen are a big part of that.
Of the 13 players who have seen playing time this season, 12 have effective field goal percentages of 50 percent or better with freshman guards Mara Mote (67.6 percent) and Helena Pueyo (67.5 percent) leading the way. The two freshmen average 1.39 (Mote) and 1.38 (Pueyo) points per scoring attempt to pace the Wildcats.
Pueyo is the obvious star of the five-player freshman class. Although she comes off the bench, she is already playing starter-level minutes at 20.6 mpg. That slightly outpaces the 19 mpg of starting senior guard Amari Carter.
“She’s a 6-1 guard that’s extremely talented,” Barnes said of Pueyo. “And I think she’s just touched her talent. I don’t think she’s even scratched the surface. She’s over 50 percent 3-point shooter. She’s a tremendous passer. She can also put it on the floor. So I think she’s going to be a star in this league.”
Another vital piece whose importance has been underrated for the past two seasons is junior forward Sam Thomas. Thomas can play multiple positions, although she usually starts at the three. Her defense is her calling card, but her offense is quietly devastating to opponents.
Thomas is third on the team in PPSA (1.26) and effective field goal percentage (61.6 percent) while playing the most minutes (27.6 mpg). She sets her teammates up without taking too many risks, leading the team with a 2.20 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Wildcats still have some things to improve on as they head into their conference opener against ASU. It looked like the 3-point shot was going to be a strength this season when the team opened by shooting almost 50 percent from beyond the arc in their exhibition.
As the season has progressed, though, those numbers have gone down. Barnes doesn’t see that lasting, especially for McDonald.
“I am telling you guys right now Aari hasn’t shot the 3 well,” Barnes said. “She worked all year. She will shoot the 3 well. I guarantee... her percentage will go way up, I think in the Pac-12 because she’s worked on it and she will. She needs one game where she goes 4-for-4 or something and then she’s going to shoot the ball a lot better. She’s capable. She works on it every day. So it’s going to come and you’ll see that in the Pac-12. I’m very, very confident in her and Amari. So you can quote me on that.”
If the Wildcats can get that part of the game going, they stand a good chance against almost anyone in the league because they are strong on both ends of the floor.
Along with the No. 8 field goal percentage in the country on offense, they also have the No. 1 opponents’ field goal percentage on defense. They are No. 5 in opponents’ points per scoring attempt, No. 1 in opponents’ points per play, and No. 3 in steal rate.
“We’ve been really playing phenomenal defense in the first quarter of every single game,” Barnes said. “We’ve jumped on teams. We did that in Texas, we did that at UTEP. We’ve done a really good job with that. Solid defense. I think our defense has been disruptive for everybody. I think they have a tough time getting into their offense. So we have to continue that.”
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing on the defensive side to worry about, though.
“We’ve got to be a little bit better on the boards,” Barnes said. “I don’t care about offensive rebounds, because we don’t crash a whole lot, but I care about defensive rebounds. So just concentrating on that, and being solid inside while Dominique (McBryde)’s out. So, we got to buy time for her to come back. And just playing great post D.”
McBryde, a starter who has been nursing an ankle injury for a few weeks, is expected to be available for the Pac-12 opener.
Barnes has said that she doesn’t expect to continue being No. 1 in the defensive categories once Pac-12 season starts because of the increased competition. But there may not be as much drop off as she once expected.
The top teams in the conference have shown some unexpected vulnerability. The formerly-No. 1 Stanford Cardinal just lost to the same Texas team that Arizona handled easily in early November. The formerly-No. 1 Oregon Ducks are still extremely threatening, but they may be falling behind the Oregon State Beavers in the battle for dominance in their own state.
First, though, it’s time to face the 10-2 Sun Devils. For the first time since the 2002-03 season, Arizona will be the ranked team in the match-up, while ASU will enter the weekend unranked. The Wildcats are looking to keep it that way.
“I’m excited,” McDonald said. “I’m so excited. I’ve been waiting for this. I know that my team can compete with any team in this conference. And I’m excited to show what we can do.”
How to watch
The game will tip off in Desert Financial Arena at 12 p.m. MST on Sunday, Dec. 29. It will be aired on the Pac-12 Networks.
The radio call will be on KTUC 1400 AM. KTUC is available on Tunein.com or via the Tunein app.
Game stats will be available at Arizona Live Stats.