There were more watch list announcements this week. And, yes, Aari McDonald was added to yet another group of potential honorees, but another list recognized an even more foundational member of the Arizona Wildcat’s program.
Head coach Adia Barnes was named to the late-season watch list for the Werner Ladder Naismith Trophy for Women’s Coach of the Year on Wednesday.
“I mean, it’s cool,” Barnes said. “Someone actually texted me this morning, but I think it’s just an honor. But that goes along with winning and the program being ranked and all that stuff.”
Barnes was one of 15 coaches named to the list. The architect of the rebirth of Arizona women’s basketball joined four other Pac-12 coaches as potential honorees. Others from the league are Cori Close of UCLA, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, Oregon’s Kelly Graves and Oregon State’s Scott Rueck.
It was by far the largest contingent of coaches from a single conference. The stature of Pac-12 coaches might be the biggest recommendation for Barnes.
Arizona’s coach was tasked with turning around a program that had been an afterthought both on the national and conference level for almost two decades. She didn’t get to do it playing in a weak league, either. Instead, she had to accomplish her task against the strongest group of coaches and players in the country.
When Barnes was hired in April 2016 after spending five years as an assistant coach at Washington, her alma mater had one winning season in the previous eleven years. As Barnes could attest to as a coach at another Pac-12 program, it had become a team that others marked off as an easy win on their schedules.
She immediately got to work improving the talent. She often talks about her first recruit, Lucia Alonso, who came in as a freshman in 2016 and set the second-highest mark for 3-point shooting percentage in program history. Along with the seniors Barnes inherited, that helped the Wildcats finish just under .500 at 14-16.
The next year, it was the 30th-ranked class, which included Sam Thomas, her first top-100 recruit according to espnW’s Hoopgurlz. She also convinced three key transfers to join the team, headlined by McDonald coming over from Washington. While the team struggled on the floor, everyone knew it was a matter of just waiting things out until the 2018-19 season.
And what a season it was. Aided by a top-10 class with Cate Reese, the first female McDonald’s All-American to play at Arizona, the Wildcats made history with an 18-game improvement. When Reese took the floor as a freshman, it was on a team that had been completely remade in under three years. A WNIT title was the prize.
This season, as McDonald and Reese rack up accolades, the Wildcats have climbed to their highest ranking in over 20 years at No. 11. They are all but guaranteed a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Even bigger, they are set to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, possibly as a host for the first two rounds.
Barnes will always credit her players with the success, but players only come if coaches can convince them there’s some reason to join a program. Barnes assembled a staff that has helped her convince some of the world’s best young players to suit up for Arizona. It’s paying off for those players and their coach.