Fans of the Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team know how important Aari McDonald is to the success of the program. Does the rest of the country? That’s still uncertain based on Zac Boyer’s article ($) in The Athletic naming the 25 “most intriguing” players in women’s college basketball.
In a rather interesting list that sets out with a specific objective: “The point of this entirely subjective exercise is to identify the players whose performances will be crucial to their teams’ success over the next several months,” Boyer wrote. “It is not meant to be a list of the best players in the country, even though some overlap is inevitable.”
Under those criteria, it was still odd to see McDonald’s name pop up outside the top 10. Boyer placed her at No. 11. That was behind three other Pac-12 players: Stanford’s Haley Jones (No. 2), Oregon’s Erin Boley (No. 5) and Oregon State’s Taylor Jones (No. 9). Not on the list were several players who are crucial to their teams’ success, including UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere and USC’s Alissa Pili.
Meanwhile, Connecticut placed three players on a list of those “crucial to their teams’ success.”
About McDonald, Boyer writes: “McDonald, one of the best two-way players in the country, played an oversized role for the Wildcats last season. Not only was she named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, her 36.8 percent usage rate, which evaluates how often a possession ended with the ball in a player’s hands, ranked fourth nationally out of 3,321 players tracked. She averaged a conference-high 20.6 points and 2.3 steals and also had 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game for Arizona.”
On one hand, Boyer’s placement of McDonald outside the top 10 can be seen as a compliment of the program. With Sam Thomas, Cate Reese, Helena Pueyo and some strong newcomers, perhaps McDonald’s performance won’t be as crucial to the Wildcats’ success as it has been the past two seasons. Since she finally hit the floor for Arizona two years ago, McDonald has not only led her team, but led the conference in both scoring and steals.
One could argue that Reese is Player B when it comes to who’s most crucial to Arizona playing up to its potential in 2020-21. Thomas is in that conversation, too, although her importance isn’t always as obvious to someone who doesn’t watch a lot of Pac-12 basketball.
Maybe Oregon really does need Boley and Oregon State really does need Taylor Jones more than Arizona needs McDonald if they are going to have success. Does Stanford really need Haley Jones more than McDonald when they brought in the No. 2 class last season and have both Kiana Williams and Maya Dodson (No. 23 on the list) on the roster, though?
In many ways, it seems as if the evaluation of the Pac-12 is based on which teams have gotten the most press the last few years. An evaluation of the players should certainly have put Onyenwere and Pili in the discussion, as well as bumping McDonald up the list.
Like many lists that cover the women’s game, it’s difficult to get national writers to look beyond the surface, especially when it comes to teams in the West. Despite the success of the Pac-12, knowledge of the conference is still wanting on the national stage.
When putting together a list of who’s most important to a team’s success, might someone put last year’s top shooting guard in the top 5? Probably.
Without McDonald, Arizona will not reach its first Sweet Sixteen since Adia Barnes wore the uniform. The Wildcats certainly won’t compete for what could be the first Final Four in program history. It’s not just her play, but the fact that her teammates know they’re never out of a game if McDonald is on the floor.
That might make her the most important player to her team’s success in the country.