Why does a player choose a school? These days it could be for reasons ranging from their major to how much they think they can make via name, image, and likeness deals. For Arizona women’s basketball, the central reason for most players has been the same for the past several years—head coach Adia Barnes. It was no different for the six players who joined the Wildcats this fall.
Arizona welcomed three freshmen and three transfers this school year. Aaronette Vonleh, Anna Gret Así, and Gisela Sanchez enter their first year of college ball. Madi Conner, a fourth member of the freshman class, enrolled early last January. They are joined by transfers Taylor Chavez, Koi Love, and Ariyah Copeland. All felt the draw of Barnes.
It wasn’t always just about personal feelings, either. Vonleh had it on good authority that Barnes would be the right coach for her. Lisa Griffith, Vonleh’s club coach back in Oregon, played alongside Barnes at Arizona in the late 1990s. She was a guard on the only team to advance to at least the Sweet 16 prior to last season.
“She’s been my club coach since seventh grade, so we built a pretty strong relationship,” Vonleh said. “(Griffith) told me that I would love (Barnes) as a coach. Her coaching style was similar to hers, so it wouldn’t be anything too different.”
Griffith also put in a good word for the Arizona campus, which was important since Vonleh couldn’t take visits during the pandemic.
Another newcomer didn’t need someone else to tell her about the state of Arizona. Chavez left her home state to go to Oregon in 2018 after an impressive prep career at Valley Vista High in Surprise, Ariz.
During her initial recruitment, she wasn’t ready to give Arizona a look, Barnes often jokes. After the Wildcats’ run to the national title game, things were different. It gave Chavez a glimpse of what it might mean to play for Barnes.
“I feel like one of the main things that made me want to play for her was her sense of poise and confidence that she radiated through her team, especially in the postseason when I followed the team,” Chavez said. “Just seeing how she interacted with them in high-pressure situations. And there was always a sense of confidence and just poise that coming from your leader, that’s something you really, really want and you need to succeed. So that was something that really resonated with me.”
Even some of the newcomers who are making their home in Arizona for the first time are impressed with their new home state.
“Adia Barnes, the culture here,” Love said. “Tucson, Arizona is like no place on earth.”
Things aren’t all roses, though. Barnes expressed some disappointment that the run to the Final Four hasn’t paid off even more on the recruiting trail. The Wildcats have been on the radar of a lot of high-profile players, but so far they aren’t getting as many commitments as they expected. They have Maya Nnaji and Kailyn Gilbert—the No. 9 and No. 31 players from the 2022 class—verbally committed, but Barnes thought there would be more.
“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. I think the difference is that now we’re recruiting all the best kids in the country. So now it’s like I’m going against UConn, NC State, Stanford, all the best of the best. So now it’s the best kids in the country and there’s only a few of them and they’re really heavily recruited. So I think that’s challenging. You know, because I’m going against a lot more experienced programs that have a lot more championships. So we just went there once and we didn’t win, but then UConn won 11 of them, and (Geno Auriemma is) a legend.”
To stay on the radar of those highly-recruited players, the players already here need to continue building the Arizona brand. Barnes thinks they’re in a position to do that this season.
“I think everybody works a little harder now,” Barnes said. “Because it’s like, we want more. We’re not satisfied with what happened. We’re not like, ‘Oh, we’re so happy we lost in the championship.’”