Adia Barnes is spending a lot of time on the phone these days. She talks to her players. She talks to her coaches. She talks to the medical staff. She talks to reporters.
And, especially this time of year, she talks to recruits.
“Yeah, we’re recruiting so much right now,” Barnes said by phone Tuesday. “I have like four Zoom calls a day. I mean, I’m probably on the phone like eight hours a day right now. We’re just so busy.”
While sports have pretty much been put on hold by the coronavirus crisis, college recruiting is still in force and coaches are adapting to this new age of social distancing.
The NCAA has banned in-person contact through May, so on-campus visits have given way to phone calls, virtual tours of facilities, PowerPoint presentations, and video chats.
Patience and persistence are more valuable than ever.
“The process is a significant amount longer because we can’t have them on visits,” Barnes said. “Usually [at this point in] April, we would probably have had four or five visits by now. And then we would have had them through April and May. But we would also be doing workouts and things a lot. I’m curious to see how it’s going to affect teams because our kids are gonna go months without really doing much.”
Barnes is hoping to round out Arizona’s roster with a high-level transfer, preferably a graduate transfer who can play the 4 or the 5 and immediately help mitigate the loss of defensive stalwart Dominique McBryde.
That player must also fit the team’s culture and be a positive contributor off the court. The problem, Barnes said, is that there is a swelling demand for those kinds of players but a short supply.
“There’s only been two or three in the portal, and so you’re seeing a lot more guards,” she said. “There’s some really good guards and I think we could add a guard if she’s really special as a fifth-year that can really help us. But I think the focus would be someone to replace Dominique or a really strong rebounder. But they’re very hard to find.”
The programs Barnes is competing with for them are the latest evidence of the surge of Arizona women’s basketball.
“The challenging part is now that we’re a top-10 team, now you’re competing against Louisville, UConn, all those schools, which is really hard because those are the players that can bring you to the next level,” she said.
About that next level...
Even with the loss of McBryde and starting two-guard Amari Carter to graduation, the Wildcats are stacked heading into the 2020-21 season.
ESPN agrees with Barnes’ declaration that they are a top-10 team, recently ranking them No. 7 in their early preseason rankings. That would mean a pretty sizable improvement from 2019-20 when Arizona finished 12th in the AP Poll.
Barnes explains that ascension this way: Arizona’s returners—which include the ballyhooed trio of Aari McDonald, Sam Thomas and Cate Reese—will keep improving while Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington will bring a dynamic dimension to the backcourt.
“Shaina is a fierce competitor and I’m excited for her to bring that,” Barnes said. “It was fun watching Aari and Shaina compete every day in practice. And I think they’re very different. They can play together, we can use different lineups and they both can handle the ball, they both are great on-the-ball defenders, so I think we get a lot better adding Shaina.”
Arizona’s recruiting class, a trio highlighted by five-star post Lauren Ware, is talented too, but Barnes always tempers her expectations for freshmen. Whatever they bring to the table will be a bonus.
“We’ve got the program where it should be at this time,” Barnes said. “We’re no longer rebuilding. We’re climbing to the top. And I think that there’s still a lot of ways that we can get better. I think, for me as a coach, it’s setting ways that can improve us more defensively, setting ways that can make us a little bit more efficient offensively. Now, it’s, ‘how do we get that next level and take one step up?’ And I think that we have to rebound the ball a little bit better. I think just tweaking a few things can take us to the next level.”
Barnes reacts to McDonald’s decision
Tuesday was the first time I spoke to Barnes since McDonald announced her decision to return for her senior season. Barnes, not surprisingly, is “really happy” about having her star point guard back.
“I think she made the right decision for her and I think it was a smart decision,” Barnes said. “I didn’t want to be involved in helping her make her decision. I wanted to take a step back so she makes the decision for her and her family. ... I just gave her the pros and cons and what my opinion was, but then I stepped back and let her do it because I wanted her to feel great about her decision, to feel happy, and to feel what was right in her heart.”
The pros of a return, in Barnes’ eyes, were pretty much what I outlined in March—the opportunity to earn a master’s degree, replace Sabrina Ionescu as the best guard in the Pac-12, and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Barnes was not surprised McDonald spurned the WNBA Draft, but thinks her decision might have been different if she were healthy and the coronavirus didn’t leave the Wildcats with unfinished business.
“I thought it was 50-50,” Barnes said. “I think that if we would have gone deep in the tournament and she was completely healthy, I don’t think she would have came back. But I think having a stress reaction (in her foot) and not being healthy, and then the situation that’s going on, I think those things have played a factor and I think she made a great decision. She’s only going to get better. She’s only going to improve. She’s only going to be stronger. So I think her situation is only gonna get better. It’s not gonna get worse.”
Another transfer on the way out
Barnes said Arizona will have a second player enter the transfer portal in the coming days. The first was sophomore guard Bryce Nixon, who announced her intentions last month.
Barnes referred to that as a “great decision.” Nixon only appeared in 16 games this season, averaging a mere 5.8 minutes, and it would have been more of the same moving forward.
“It was gonna be really hard for Bryce to play minutes here because there’s so many talented players in front of her,” Barnes said. “So I think Bryce going down to a level where she can be an impact is the best thing for her. Our program has changed so much. When we first got here, we were bottom of the Pac-12. Now we’re on top of the Pac-12 and we’re a top-10 team next year so there’s a lot more talented players. Aari is an All-American, Shaina’s an all-conference player, so I think it’s difficult when you’re young, you’re playing behind great upperclassmen and you have to face them.
“And I think with this generation, I think kids don’t want to sit and have patience and work and wait. And I think that’s why you’re seeing 500 kids (in the portal) and there’s nothing wrong with that. If your objective is to play and you go down to a level where you can do that, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing.”
Yeaney not expected to play in 2020-21
The Wildcats have already added one transfer in Indiana guard Bendu Yeaney but they are not expecting the junior to play in 2020-21 even though she only appeared in six games in 2019-20 and might be able to receive a waiver to play immediately.
Known for her athleticism, Yeaney was just coming back from an Achilles tear that she suffered in March 2019. Before that injury, she averaged 9.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.5 steals per game as a sophomore.
A sit-out year could help her recapture that form by the time she makes her UA debut.