In 1985, the Arizona Wildcats were looking for a new head coach for their women’s basketball team. One of the candidates was the head coach at Ohio State. Her name? Tara VanDerveer.
VanDerveer also interviewed for the head job at Washington that year, but she would ultimately take over at Stanford. Arizona would hire Wendy Larry.
It’s not that Larry was a bad hire. She was the 1986 Pacific West Coach of the Year as the leader of the Wildcats. She just didn’t stick around long enough to build anything at Arizona.
She was gone two seasons after she was hired, heading back East to take over the Old Dominion Lady Monarchs in 1987. Larry would later lead ODU to the national championship game in 1997 before retiring from coaching in 2011.
Meanwhile, VanDerveer—an East Coast transplant like Larry—was building the most powerful women’s basketball program the West has seen. And she’s maintained that position for 35 years on her way to winning more games than any other coach in the women’s game.
As her sixth-ranked Wildcats head into their match-up against the No. 1 Cardinal, Adia Barnes is in the process of trying to do what Larry didn’t at Arizona: build a program that can sustain success over the long haul. But what does it take to reach the stature of a program like Stanford? What can the Wildcats do to close the gap?
On the court, Arizona has been closing the gap for the last two years. The Wildcats were blown out in Tucson two years ago, but lost to the Cardinal by two points in the waning seconds of the game in Maples. Last year, Arizona won the only matchup between the two teams, a 73-72 overtime victory.
That improvement can be laid at the feet of one thing: improved talent. That’s an area where Arizona still needs to make up ground over the long term.
The Wildcats’ success over the last few years couldn’t have happened without Aari McDonald. They are a more complete team this year than they ever have been, but McDonald is still who makes it all go.
The question is what happens when she’s gone. Arizona will still have talent, but despite “just” being a four-star recruit out of high school, McDonald is a transcendent player. In just three years, she may yet become the top scorer in program history while also being one of the best defenders in the country.
For the Cardinal, the next player in line is never a question. That’s what happens when your recruiting classes are ranked in the top 10 year after year and they arrive to be coached by someone like VanDerveer.
While Arizona is able to nab a top 100 player or two once every few years, Stanford has multiple highly-recruited prospects year in and year out.
In Barnes’ first year at Arizona, Stanford had ESPN’s No. 9 class. In 2017, they had the No. 5 group. 2018? They were No. 10. Last year, the Cardinal brought in the No. 1 player and No. 2 class in the country. This year, it was the No. 6 class.
The Wildcats will bring in only their second top-25 class in the Barnes era next season. When compared to programs that bring in top-10 classes on a yearly basis, that’s a big gap to make up. As Oregon has shown, it’s not impossible, though—and it can even be done in a short period of time.
Arizona has been able to make the final group for several top recruits over the past few years, but getting them to pull the trigger has been a much taller task. What Barnes has done to fill those gaps is woo transfers and international players.
Is that a plan for long term success? Getting a player like McDonald to transfer in is almost as difficult as getting that five-star out of high school. Not only has her dominance elevated the program, but she wasn’t just passing through. Three years with a player like that can improve a program’s profile and provide stability in a way that a string of grad transfers is unlikely to replicate.
There aren’t a lot of transfers like McDonald, though. Building a stable program that can maintain a position in the polls on a yearly basis will ultimately require finding a way to get those top recruits to do more than just put the Block A on their social media as a finalist.