When we last visited the question of the Arizona Wildcats’ possible lineups next season, there were still numerous moving parts left to be stabilized. Decisions over the past week by star guard Aari McDonald and the NCAA provided much of that stabilization.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still a few questions bouncing around the program, but we have a better idea of who will be around when sports are revived.
The Aari Decision
The biggest issue facing the Wildcats was whether McDonald would return for her senior season. With a number of redshirt juniors opting to forego their senior seasons and go pro, it was a real worry.
There were numerous scouts and coaches at several Arizona games this season, including head coach Brian Agler of the Dallas Wings. Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello sat near half-court in Arizona’s quarterfinal game against California at the Pac-12 Tournament.
As reported by High Post Hoops, league sources had Dallas considering McDonald with either the No. 5 or the No. 7 pick in April’s draft. That was well above the late first-round or early second-round projections in many mock drafts.
Ultimately, the opportunities to work on a master’s degree, improve her game, recover from a stress fracture, lead Arizona to its first Final Four, and be the face of Pac-12 basketball next year was more than enough to bring McDonald back to Tucson. It was worth more than what the WNBA had to offer in this time of uncertainty, anyway.
The NCAA decision
The disappointing news for last year’s seniors came from the NCAA on Tuesday afternoon. Lucia Alonso, Dominique McBryde, Tee Tee Starks and Amari Carter have, indeed, played their final games in Arizona uniforms. While spring athletes were granted an extra year of eligibility for their shortened seasons, winter athletes were not offered that relief.
It was always a longshot, but it’s still especially unfortunate for McBryde and Alonso. Alonso spent four years and McBryde spent three (including her sit-out year) helping build the program back to the point where it could reach a NCAA Tournament and even be in line to host the first two rounds.
They will not have the opportunity to experience the reward. Instead, their last memory of playing in front of the McKale Center faithful will be a heartbreaking loss to California on senior day.
The questions that remain
Arizona still has questions to answer before we know for sure what the depth chart will look like next season. Most importantly, the Wildcats need to know about the availability of transfer Bendu Yeaney and committed (but unsigned) freshman Marta Garcia.
What does the starting lineup look like?
Assuming Yeaney and Garcia are both on campus and eligible to play in 2020-21, the Wildcats have a stacked lineup. They bring in players from all three of Adia Barnes’ recruiting staples: Top 100 preps, experienced transfers, and quality international players.
At the guard spots, they will be bursting at the seams yet again. That likely prompted junior-to-be Bryce Nixon to see the writing on the wall and jump into the portal.
McDonald will be one of the top guards in the country if not the top guard in the country next year. There’s no scenario where she is healthy and doesn’t dominate the minutes at either the lead or the off guard position.
Staying healthy will be key. Before the season started, Barnes said that her goal was to spare McDonald as much as possible, especially in the non-conference part of the season. The coach was able to accomplish that task, playing McDonald just 31.8 minutes per game for four fewer minutes this season.
McDonald didn’t even lead the Wildcats in minutes this year. For the second time in her career it was junior Sam Thomas logging the most time for Arizona.
The question is who starts next to McDonald. There are multiple options, starting with Shaina Pellington. The issue is whether she is so similar to McDonald that it makes more sense for her to play the relief role.
The games of Pellington and McDonald are predicated on quickness. Prior to last season, Barnes said that Pellington was not quite as fast as McDonald, but was pretty close. They both have shot over 45 percent from the floor, but they have yet to show a consistent 3-point aptitude at the college level. They are tenacious on defense.
Another option would be to put Helena Pueyo next to McDonald. This would officially move McDonald back to the position of point guard, since Pueyo is a more traditional two guard. Of course, McDonald was always a point guard anyway, award classifications be damned.
The tandem were first and third on the team in assists with McDonald setting up her teammates 3.6 times per game and Pueyo dropping 1.9 dimes per contest. They also had 109 steals between them—68 for McDonald and 41 for Pueyo.
Most importantly, though, Pueyo offers consistent outside shooting. Of the three options to occupy the second backcourt position, she is the only one that would force the defense to guard her to the 3-point line every game and every possession.
The third option is Yeaney, assuming that she is eligible to play next season. She is another tough defender, but she averaged under 10 PPG in both of her full seasons at Indiana.
Yeaney has also been inconsistent from distance. Her freshman season, she shot 39.4 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 28 of her 71 shots. Her second year, that plummeted to 20.4 percent. She took only 49 in 34 games and hit just 10 of them. In her injury-shortened junior season, she missed both of her 3-point shots.
With her defensive mindset, Yeaney might be more suited to a lockdown defender off the bench, filling the role that Starks had when she arrived in Tucson. Having her starting would likely put even more pressure on McDonald to score, and would do little in the way of providing a reliable outside threat to keep the defense from clogging the lane.
Probable: Pueyo or Pellington
There’s one option on the wing and one option only: Sam Thomas. Her 31-point outburst against Utah shows that she is capable of being a scorer. Her career 3-point shooting percentage (35.4) shows that she can help open the lane for McDonald. Thomas also showed against Utah that she is capable of handling the point. That should be no surprise given that she was second on the team in assists with 2.2 per game this season.
None of those are the primary reason she’s on the floor, though. Thomas can disrupt every offensive position on the court. Her quickness, vision and length allow her to pick the opponent’s pocket or, just as easily, block a shot.
Lock: Thomas will end her career as a four-year starter. She will have earned it.
Like Thomas, Cate Reese is on her way to being a four-year starter for Arizona. After spending her first two years as a de facto five, she will probably be a four in both name and fact this upcoming season.
Reese has done a superb job battling inside against women who are generally much stronger than she is. While she is agile and competitive, Reese is rather slender in build. Even with time in the weight room, that hasn’t changed much and it’s unlikely to, but it probably won’t matter as much in 2020-21.
There will be a few options to take the five position, but it’s almost assuredly Semaj Smith’s position to lose for a number of reasons. The 6-foot-6 center was the first big off the bench this year and took over the starting position when McBryde was injured.
Early in the season, several players were asked who they thought had improved the most. Smith’s name was the one thrown out by most of her teammates. While it’s unlikely that she will have the opportunity to make more advances in the offseason, the year’s worth of games gave her the chance to make additional improvements.
That lack of offseason preparation is another reason that Smith is the frontrunner to be the other big next to Reese. Rising sophomore Sevval Gül was the second big off the bench this past season, but she missed last year’s summer preparations due to national team commitments in Turkey. Like all of the players, she could miss those preparations this summer due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Incoming freshman Lauren Ware will be an option in future years, but she will have very difficult time overcoming an entrenched Smith right out of the gate. First and foremost, she will not even be available until at least the beginning of December due to her commitments with Arizona volleyball. If Dave Rubio’s team makes the NCAA Tournament, that could push her appearance back until January.
For a player who has been recovering from a knee injury since July 2019, it is very unlikely that Ware will be ready to be a starter on a high-level Pac-12 basketball team for a while.
Of the freshmen, Pueyo, Gül and Mara Mote saw the most minutes last season. There’s nothing to suggest that won’t continue in 2020-21, with Pueyo leading the way and possibly moving into a starting role. The potential lack of summer practice could hamper the usual development between freshman and sophomore seasons, but that will be something everyone across NCAA basketball is dealing with.
Guards/Wings: Mote took a shot at playing point guard for the first time in her basketball career last season. It will be interesting to see if that continues in her sophomore season, but she will continue to be a key reserve regardless of whether she’s playing the point or on the wing.
Mote can get going from the outside, as she showed when she hit four of her five shots from distance against UC Riverside. That appearance reflected what she brought to the table for the Latvian national team. In the 2019 U19 World Cup, she averaged 10.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals per game. She has hovered right around 10 PPG in her last several international tournaments.
In most of her appearances for Arizona, her role was to bring the ball up and start the offense. She was not asked to be a scorer, and her stat line reflects that. She does have the ability to be a double-digit scorer, as her 45 percent shooting (9 of 20) from outside indicates.
She will have to see more than 6.4 minutes per game to prove that she’s a scoring threat, though. That will likely have to wait until her junior season, but she has what it takes to be a key reserve in 2020-21.
Tara Manumaleuga also showed the ability to hit from long distance, connecting on 50 percent of her 20 shots from beyond the arc. With Alonso now gone, Manumaleuga could see some time if Arizona needs a 3-point threat off the bench.
The backcourt will also add Turkish point guard Derin Erdogan. With no promise of summer workouts, it’s unclear how ready Erdogan will be to contribute this season. She is fortunate that Gül is on the team, so she will not be the only Turkish player for the Wildcats. That will likely make her transition easier than it was for her countrywoman off the court.
On the court, Erdogan’s development is more difficult to predict because there is little information available about her and most of it is out of date. In 2018-19, she played in the TKBL, the second-level league in Turkey. She had a good season for Istanbul University, but it was not against the strongest of competition.
Frontcourt: Assuming that she follows through on her verbal commitment, Garcia should join Gül as a solid option off the bench to spell the starters. The 6-foot-3 Spaniard is listed as both a power forward and a center, which could make her a solid backup for Smith.
When Ware joins up with the basketball team, she should be on her way to being a third option off the bench. Considering her high school success, it’s quite possible that she could jump over some of the more experienced players on the depth chart.
Birna Benonysdottir has the ability to stretch defenses, but still needs to adapt to the speed of the NCAA game if she is going to earn more minutes.