The record crowds passing through the doors of McKale Center for the Arizona Wildcats’ run through the WNIT are turning heads. At every press conference, coach Adia Barnes and her players are asked about the emotions they experience playing in front of such huge numbers.
Arizona set a program record for attendance at a women’s basketball game with 10,135 fans at Wednesday’s semifinal. The program is shooting for 12,000 fans at Saturday’s championship, which would be about 1,000 fewer than Indiana drew for last season’s championship game.
The buzz around the team is certainly exciting. But what does this WNIT run mean for the long-term goals of the program?
Recruiting: Selling a reality instead of a vision
Last year at this time, Barnes and her staff were doing in-home visits with recruits. She called not being able to do them this year “a good problem to have.” The WNIT certainly provides its own recruiting advantages, even if it does conflict with the calendar.
Barnes said she’s been selling a vision to recruits for the past three years.
“Lucia (Alonso) was my first recruit,” she said. “I sold a vision. Sam Thomas was one of our first recruits. We sold a vision. Those players took a chance on Arizona, took a chance on me. They were only looking at what I thought this program could be. There was no proof because we hadn’t won.
“So, I’m just happy that they took a chance on us because those are the people I want to build with, and that’s special to me. Aari (McDonald), Sam, Cate (Reese) could have gone a lot of places. They chose this place because they believed it would happen. So for me, it’s so special that it’s starting to happen. Now we’re not there yet, but we’re going to get there. And I love that and that’s more meaningful, because I just sold a vision to them and they bought into and they want to be a part of it.”
She now has something tangible to point to when she speaks with future players and their parents. Not only wins, but a crowd of people waiting to support the players. Shortly after the semifinal victory over TCU, InsideArizonaBasketball.com—a marketing site dedicated to the women’s basketball team—tweeted out an appeal to recruits. It was entirely based on the strong fan support shown during the WNIT.
“I think Tucson is excited about women’s basketball again,” Barnes said. “It’s been over a decade. This city is rallying. I mean, already our season tickets have skyrocketed for next year. So there’s momentum for us. And that helps in every way. So all of these things help our program, helps us with recruiting because we’re still playing. There’s only a handful teams playing in the country. So all those things, it’s just enormous for the future of this program.”
In college football, the common view is that even a lower-tier bowl is beneficial for a team because it allows an extra month of practice and an extra game. That might be even more true of the WNIT in women’s basketball.
Last season, Arizona played 30 games. The season was over on Mar. 1 when ASU eliminated the Wildcats from the Pac-12 tournament. This season, they will play 37, and will continue practicing and competing until Apr. 6.
“It starts the avalanche,” Barnes said. “And I look back at when I played, we won the WNIT, we weren’t ready for the tournament. Just like right now, the WNIT is better for us. We play more games, we get momentum, it’s for the future, it’s more experience for our young players versus playing one game and being done or two games.
“And then next year, they’re not going to want to go WNIT. They’re going to expect tournament, so that’s more hungry. That’s more of a level of competitiveness. That’s more players that want to play with great players. So that’s how it all starts. And that’s how it started when I was here in Arizona. So hopefully we can repeat history.”
Barnes has talked about the development in her freshmen, even from one month ago. She has been able to play Semaj Smith meaningful minutes in the postseason, which will become more important as Smith advances through her college career. An eventual front court of Smith and Cate Reese could become a formidable unit in two years. The WNIT gives both players more opportunities to hone their games in high-pressure situations.
“That’s amazing that all of our hard work is paying off,” Dominique McBryde said. “I think that it just says a lot in great lengths for the program, see how we’re growing and the sky’s the limit for us and this is just the stepping stone for what’s to come.”
Everyone around the program believes that the WNIT is just a step in Arizona’s rebuild process. It gives Arizona the opportunity to learn what it means to play win-or-go-home basketball.
“It’s big for a lot of reasons,” Barnes said. “The primary reason is because we’re getting experience. We’ve played now five postseason games. Normally, this would be what you do to go into a Final Four, winning a championship. So playing five games, it’s a lot of experience because these are pressure games. They’re one and done.
“So we’re getting tremendous experience from this. We’re playing in big games in front of big crowds. This is how the tournament will be. So it’s preparing us for that for the future. We’re playing for a month longer. We’re playing against different teams that we haven’t seen, so we have to adjust. That’s how you have to be in the tournament. So all these things are extremely valuable for our program long term.”