Arizona’s rotation has been a game of musical chairs this season. When one player gets healthy, another gets hurt.
Only five Wildcats have appeared in all 16 games. Senior guard Tee Tee Starks, one of Arizona’s best perimeter defenders and shooters, has already been ruled out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Starting forward Dominique McBryde missed more than a month of action with an ankle sprain, robbing Arizona of some vital frontcourt depth. She returned in a limited role Friday vs. No. 3 Oregon State, only for Helena Pueyo, the team’s sixth-man, to suffer an ankle injury of her own just minutes later.
The ailment would not only keep Pueyo out of the rest of that game but also Sunday’s tilt vs. No. 2 Oregon. The Wildcats dropped both games by a combined nine points. Maybe things would have been different had they been healthier.
The thought of that irks Arizona coach Adia Barnes.
“I just can’t wait until we get a complete team,” she said. “It’s not an excuse. We could have lost anyways, but I just want a complete team so we’re healthy and we have numbers and more depth.”
The 21st-ranked Wildcats have only played one major-conference opponent with Pueyo and their usual starting five intact. They destroyed then-No. 22 Texas on the road, 83-58.
Otherwise, Arizona is 2-3 against major-conference opponents, with wins at ASU and USC. Yes, all three losses were to top-10 teams, but all the injuries made the Wildcats easier to prepare for.
McBryde’s quickness, versatility, and overall savviness gives Arizona a different edge defensively. The Wildcats can switch more and be more aggressive. She also helps solve the defensive rebounding woes that have plagued UA throughout conference play.
Pueyo is Arizona’s best 3-point shooter and a steady ball handler. Without her, they have seen nothing but zone defense. Barnes said that does two things—it clogs driving lanes for Aari McDonald (both in the halfcourt and transition) and forces the Wildcats to shoot from the perimeter, where they are converting just 33 percent of their triples.
Arizona shot 4 for 16 (25%) from 3 vs. the Beavers and 9 for 20 (45%) against the Ducks, a number that is deceptively high because McDonald alone went 5 for 10, converting some extremely difficult looks.
“So I think [zone] gave [the other teams] a chance, and we weren’t able to get them out of it, so that’s kind of the frustrating part,” Barnes said. “If we have Helena, she’s a 40-plus 3-point shooter, it spreads them out and gives lanes for Aari.”
Freshman guards Tara Manumaleuga and Mara Mote are shooting a combined 16 for 32 from 3 this season but cannot replace Pueyo’s production. They turned the ball over three times in two minutes against the Ducks, earning them a spot on the bench.
“Tara and Mara are young,” Barnes said. “We went to the bench and they got the ball taken, and it’s okay, it’s experience, but it was hard to keep them in the game because of that. So we just got to continue to get them better and work.”
The good news is Barnes said Sunday that she expects Pueyo to play against the Washington schools this weekend (though she tends to be overly optimistic about those kinds of things).
Maybe then Arizona will get to show what it’s truly capable of.
“Just think about how (hard) we are to guard,” Barnes said. “You have Helena on the perimeter, everybody has to be a little bit closer. With Amari (Carter), they’re not consistently going out and guarding her at the 3, because of the stats. With Aari, everybody’s going under on-ball (screens). They would rather Aari take a stepback 3 behind the screen than turn the corner. ... So we have to be able to hit shots, but it can’t only be Sam (Thomas), and it can’t only be Aari. ... I thought Dominique did a great job, but we need Helena to come in off the bench and hit shots and she’s a great (shooter). Her 3-pointers are like a layup.”
Starks taking on coaching role
The Wildcats were originally hoping to get Starks back at some point this season, but that was dashed a couple weeks ago when she opted to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery.
It was the only option.
Starks had been receiving injections and doing physical therapy with the hope that she would progress enough to play, but Barnes said she “didn’t really progress at all.”
“Like a tiny bit, but I mean she was having pain opening her shower curtain,” Barnes said. “So at that point, she just physically couldn’t move and we didn’t have a choice. I think if she would have probably been at like 75 percent, we would have played her. I mean, she would have played, it’s her last year. But she just couldn’t function to play basketball. She had a big tear, so we didn’t have a choice. But I gave her a lot of time. I didn’t care. I figured if we got her back at the end of January, it wouldn’t matter. But it just wasn’t an option.”
Starks is now serving as a player-coach of sorts. Barnes thinks she has a bright future in the industry.
“Her mother is a coach, she is very smart, she’s very honest, and she knows the game,” Barnes said. “So I’m trying to put her in a role where she can learn, and she might possibly come and stay with us next year. So I think she has a role that’s better and she’s very valuable even though she’s not playing.”
Barnes said there is a chance Starks will apply for a medical hardship waiver so she can get a sixth year of eligibility, but admitted there hasn’t been much discussion about it yet.
“It’s still very emotional,” Barnes said. “Because there’s times I’ve said, ‘we’ve missed her,’ then I’ll make her cry. So it’s hard, and I don’t want to do that. So, for me, I don’t really want to talk about that. I want to let her get better. And then if she got to a point where she’s better, then she’d probably consider it. But she’s had so many surgeries, I think you just get to a point where it’s just hard. You work so hard and get hurt again, I think it’s just a long process. So it’s a possibility, but I am not sure if it’s the best thing for the whole situation.”