Tee Tee Starks is good at keeping secrets.
So good that even Arizona head coach Adia Barnes was surprised on senior day Sunday when the McKale Center announcer informed the crowd that Starks would be returning for the 2019-20 season.
“I just found out,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t even really registering. For a second, I was like, ‘Why is Tee Tee still standing (at half court)?’ Because the pictures were done. And she was just kind of smiling. Because we haven’t talked about it much more. We talked about it, and then I didn’t want to stress her out before our last couple of games. So, with the stall, I thought maybe she was going to address the crowd.”
As Starks stood at half court taking those pictures, the crowd chanted, “One more year! One more year!” But it was the counsel of those close to her that convinced the criminal justice major to return to school.
“It took a little convincing from my mom, my family,” Starks said. “But I made the decision earlier in (February), and I was just like, ‘There’s a lot of pluses that could come out of it.’”
It wasn’t the first time Starks has surprised people with her decisions about her basketball future.
When she transferred to Arizona from Iowa State in 2017, Starks had just completed her redshirt sophomore season with the Cyclones. Her freshman year at ISU ended after only nine games due to an injury, and she was allowed to use her redshirt to recover the lost season.
After sitting out the 2017-18 season at Arizona due to NCAA transfer rules, Starks should have had two years of eligibility left to play.
The would-be redshirt junior surprised everyone at the beginning of the season when she told her coaches that the 2018-19 season would be her last year of college basketball. The pain from all her injuries was something she didn't want to deal with anymore.
But now that Starks is returning, Arizona will only lose one rotation player this offseason in senior forward Destiny Graham.
Starks adds an experienced player who averaged 24.3 minutes per game this season and made eight starts. Originally a reserve, Starks took over the starting guard position from Lucia Alonso for the final six games of the regular season after Alonso suffered an injury.
With her injury history, it is unlikely that Starks will be a full-time starter, but she has proven to be an effective defensive stopper off the bench, the role she played earlier in the year.
Starks, who averages 1.3 steals per 40 minutes, is a versatile on-the-ball defender who is able to defend most positions. At 5 feet, 9 inches, she is tall enough to bother smaller guards, and big enough to match up with wings and small forwards.
But she’s not just a defensive stopper off the bench.
Starks is one of only three Wildcats who has hit over 40 percent of her 3-point attempts while taking at least 40 shots from beyond the arc. Her 41.9 percent is third on the team, coming in just behind Alonso’s 43 percent and Dominique McBryde’s 42.5 percent.
Barnes has spoken several times about how the lack of shooters has cost the Wildcats games.
“We’ve had some struggles when the teams are going to zones and they’re big,” Barnes said after the double-overtime loss to Oregon State. “Because it really congests the paint. And we haven’t proven consistently that we can consistently knock down threes. I mean, we’re (shooting) 30 percent.”
The Wildcats do have some shooters coming in next season. Spanish recruit Helena Pueyo is described as “a big strong versatile guard who can really shoot the ball.” And they may get help from guard Tara Manumaleuga, another member of Arizona’s 2019 all-international recruiting class who is already on campus.
“Next year, you’ll see, we’ll extend the floor, we’ll open the floor more because we’re going to have more shooters,” Barnes said.
Off the court, both Barnes and her players believe the program’s culture and team cohesion are just as important to long-term success. Starks is a an asset in that regard, as well.
“I was really excited, because it’s not all about basketball to me,” Barnes said of Starks’ return. “Culture’s everything. We’ve done a tremendous job with this culture. But she is very important not only for her great defense—that’s awesome—and her experience. She’s really important off the court. She’s really important for practice. She’s really important in the locker room. She is that person who’s like, ‘Let’s stop complaining.’ Or, ‘You need to work harder.’ And she can talk the talk because she walks the walk. She’s one of the few people on our team that consistently—there’s two people—consistently, every day they give heart, effort. And I know she’s in pain. So, it’s those things which we have to manage that. But she is one of the two consistent people to do that.
“Now, we talk about culture and the shift, we’re not there yet” Barnes continued. “It takes six years, probably, to build a culture. But we are getting there because now, next year, the expectations are a little more. Then, next year, I’ll bring someone else in that works like her. So, then, the culture is that’s the norm. And, then, they start policing each other.”
For Starks, it’s more simple.
“I’m glad to have another season with these girls,” she said. “And I’m excited to accomplish some things next year.”
Her teammates are glad, too.