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Arizona women’s basketball recruiting notebook: On the losses, the wins and the hopes for the future

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Arizona v Connecticut Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Just over a week ago, Arizona women’s basketball head coach Adia Barnes sat in front of the media and talked about recruiting. She was asked about the impact of the Wildcats’ run to the Final Four on her ability to get top players. She admitted that it hadn’t materialized as much as she had hoped.

“I’m not seeing the dividends like I thought,” Barnes said. “I really thought it would lead to some other big signings, but when I talked to my friends who have won championships, they really saw it the following year. So I’m waiting for that.”

Arizona is getting a lot of interest. Top players regularly put the Wildcats in their lists of “top” programs and “finalists.” The issue for Barnes and her staff is that the commitments aren’t following those social media announcements, especially when it comes to guards and wings.

This pattern isn’t new. Throughout the Barnes area, most of Arizona’s top high school commits have been frontcourt players.

It didn’t start that way. Sam Thomas was the first top 100 commit for Barnes, giving the Wildcats a solid wing and dominant defender who is now entering her fifth year as a starter. But beginning with Cate Reese, who was ESPN’s No. 12 player and No. 3 forward in 2018, the top North American high schoolers to come to Arizona have typically played in the frontcourt.

In 2019, Arizona signed a class made up entirely of international players, only one of whom is still in Tucson. In 2020, the Wildcats’ top recruit was No. 26 overall player and No. 3 post Lauren Ware. In 2022, No. 9 Maya Nnaji, the No. 3 post in her class, is set to be the top prospect to don the Block A.

All of the top-50 players who have signed with Arizona since Barnes arrived have played either the four or the five. Does the future suggest that will change?

Can Arizona nab a top-20 wing?

Samantha “Sammie” Wagner committed to the Baylor Bears when she was in eighth grade. It made sense for the 2023 wing out of San Antonio to play for a championship program in her home state.

Then, Kim Mulkey left Baylor for LSU and Wagner decided to look around. Tucson is one of the places she’s looking.

Wagner, who sits at No. 17 in the latest ESPN HoopGurlz class of 2023 rankings, released her new top eight on Friday evening. The Arizona Wildcats join LSU, Oregon, Stanford, Texas A&M, Texas, TCU, and USC. Considering her long relationship with Mulkey, the question is whether the other seven coaches can keep her from heading to Baton Rouge.

She appears to be a player who could flourish in the Wildcats' system. In 2019, Dan Olson wrote of Wagner: “Versatile perimeter prospect with a scorer’s mentality; armed with a confident persona, assumes the role of an unselfish teammate, rises on jumper in mid-range game to the arc; big-guard size, looks for the mismatch and produces results; rebounds, handles and distributes in uptempo game; a power-5 prospect in the class of 2023.”

Is she prepared to make the move West?

Arizona misses out on a top-30 point guard

Wagner would be a great get for Arizona. The question remains, why are so many of the top backcourt and wing players out of U.S. high schools interested in the Wildcats, but not interested enough to actually sign?

Combo guard Kailyn Gilbert, the No. 31 player in 2022, is set to sign her letter of intent with Arizona ext month. She will be the first top 35 guard to sign with the program since Barnes took over. The Wildcats could use more like her.

One possibility was four-star point guard KK Bransford, the No. 29 player in the 2022 class. Arizona was one of Bransford’s five finalists. On Friday, she put an end to the hope of Wildcat fans seeing her play in McKale Center when she announced her commitment to Notre Dame.

Bransford was just the latest in a string of top 100 guards and wings to announce her interest in Arizona only to go elsewhere. From the 2021 class, it was Taylor Bigby (Oregon), Kyndall Hunter (Texas), Aziaha James (NC State), Kayla McPherson (North Carolina), Jasmine Shavers (Mississippi State), and Jada Walker (Kentucky).

Arizona still appears to be in the running for top 100 talent at those positions in the 2022 class. The program is on the final list for a premier point guard in No. 2 Kiki Rice, but her list is long and full of established women’s basketball royalty.

Perhaps a more likely possibility is combo guard Lemyah Hylton (No. 84) out of Canada. She, too, has the Wildcats on her list of finalists.

The high school senior moved to London, Ontario from her home in Mississigua to face better competition. In March, she told the London Free Press how the move helped prepare her for college and what she was looking for in school.

“I think the visits are the most important part of me getting a feel for the actual program and just the environment that I would be in and having to adapt to,” Hylton said. “Also just the relationship with the coaching staff and just making sure that I’ll be comfortable wherever I’m headed. I knew that I’d have to go away from home and it would be a great way to prepare for university and just the independence factor and just holding myself accountable and being responsible.”

The neverending drive to convince players to compete for the Wildcats keeps everyone on their toes. Arizona also recently hosted Kickapoo High School wing Ysabella Fontleroy (HoopGurlz No. 40) on an official visit. Can they get Fontleroy to leave Springfield, Missouri for Southern Arizona? They were able to argue their case at the beginning of October.

Unfortunately, Barnes and her staff have already missed out on several guards and wings they were pursuing in the 2022 class who had the Wildcats high on their lists. Several even took visits to Tucson.

The No. 7 and No. 8 players in the class—point guards Chance Gray and Aliyah Gayles —committed to Pac-12 rivals Oregon and USC, respectively. Wing Jennah Isai, who hails from the Phoenix area, is also going to Oregon. Isai is one of two top 100 players from the Valley who are going to be Ducks. Wing/forward Grace Vanslooten took an official visit to Tucson, but she’s also headed for Eugene. Point guard Londynn Jones is off to UCLA. Combo guard Carleigh Wenzel is on her way to Virginia Tech. All are top 100 players.

In addition to Wagner, the Wildcats are in the mix for several other guards and wings in the 2023 class. Wagner is the third to put Arizona on her list of top schools.

Montaya Dew is a wing out of Las Vegas Centennial High, the same high school that produced Thomas. The No. 19 player announced that Arizona was among her top 12 in September. The Wildcats are going up against some familiar foes: UCLA, Kentucky, Louisville, Ole Miss, North Carolina, Notre Dame, USC, Tennessee, Virginia, Oregon, and Stanford.

Idaho point guard Amari Whiting from Burley High School also has Arizona among her finalists. The No. 33 recruit in the 2023 class is a big guard who has skills that would fit well in Barnes’ system. Whiting also has the game in her blood. Her mother is her head coach, her father played in Italy for a dozen years, and her brother signed with Boise State.

One challenge with Whiting will be luring her away from BYU where both of her parents played. In addition to the Cougars and the Wildcats, she is considering Utah, UCLA, Oregon, and Stanford. She was scheduled to take her official visit to Stanford on Sept. 25 and took a visit to Oregon in June according to KMVT in Burley, Idaho.

Barnes may have starred in the frontcourt for Arizona, but Aari McDonald proved that guards can be wildly successful under the coach's tutelage. Gilbert has shown that she’s not afraid to try to live up to the legend of the best player in program history. Who will be the next great guard who is willing to accept those challenges?