It’s a rarity for Arizona women’s basketball. So rare that it has never happened in the Adia Barnes era. The Wildcats will play a Top 25 matchup on Friday in just their second regular-season game.
The reasons are twofold. First of all, it has been rare for the No. 22/15 Wildcats to start a season ranked. This season marks the second straight that they went into the year with a number next to their name.
The second reason was one of both philosophy and necessity. Barnes had a choice early in her tenure. Arizona had been bad for so long that teams wanted to play them. In her third season, they won the WNIT and things have not been as easy since. For the past two years, Barnes was still trying to get non-conference games filled just weeks before the season started.
But she also made choices to avoid playing top teams in non-conference while she was rebuilding the program. Instead, she waited until the team got into Pac-12 play where they were bound to face multiple Top 10 teams anyway. In the long run, it has paid off.
“We’re both so different now than we will be in March,” Barnes said about her team and the Cardinals. “And that’s one of the reasons why I normally, a couple years ago, would have never played such a strong team so early, but it’s a good test to see where you’re at and what you need to work on.”
Both teams undoubtedly had to work on how to succeed after the loss of a great player. They each lost dynamic point guards to the WNBA after last season. Arizona’s Aari McDonald went to the Atlanta Dream with the third pick. Louisville’s Dana Evans landed in Dallas with the 13th pick, then was traded to the WNBA Champion Chicago Sky after six games. The departure of those two players eliminates just over 20 points and four assists per game from each roster.
The poll voters clearly thought the loss of McDonald was a bigger deal for national runners-up Arizona than the loss of Evans was for Louisville, which went out in the Elite Eight. The Cardinals debuted at No. 6 in both the media and coaches polls, while Arizona dropped all the way to No. 22 in the AP poll. The coaches thought more highly of the Wildcats, putting them at No. 15 in the WBCA preseason poll.
As for how accurate that is, there’s very little basis for comparison right now. Arizona played two exhibition games, beating Division II Eastern New Mexico 84-25 and NAIA Arizona Christian 110-39. The Wildcats enter their first real test with a 1-0 record after beating Cal State Northridge 87-44 in their season opener.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, will open their regular season on Friday. They played one exhibition against DII Union University. That was a 106-32 victory for Louisville.
Louisville’s leading returning scorer from last season is Kianna Williams, a transfer from California. Williams averaged 11.4 points per game last year, just edging out Hailey van Lith with 11.2 ppg.
Olivia Cochran and Liz Dixon also provide stability for the Cardinals. The two led the team in rebounding last year as Cochran grabbed 6.9 boards while Dixon had 5.4 per game. They were also back-to-back in scoring ranking as Cochran finished fourth with 9.9 ppg and Dixon was fifth at 7.6.
In their exhibition, Dixon led the Cardinals with 15 points. Her six rebounds tied Emily Engstler for the team high. Is Dixon ready to step into the role of both scoring and rebounding leader? With just one game to go on, it’s impossible to know, but Arizona has the insider presence this season to go up against just about anyone.
Arizona returns three of last year’s starters. All-Pac-12 performers Cate Reese and Sam Thomas return along with always-steady Bendu Yeaney.
Where Arizona appears to have improved by a pretty large margine is the depth of their scoring. After McDonald, Reese has been the second-leading scorer for the past three years. She has been the only other player to average double-digit scoring over that time. Last season, she scored 10.9. The only other player near that mark was the now-departed Trinity Baptiste with 8.6 ppg.
This season, the Wildcats have already shown better shooting and better rebounding. In their first non-conference game last season, Arizona had four players in double figures against NAU. Reese led with 21.
It took a great deal of work to get those points, though. The Wildcats went 3-for-13 from outside. They had just 17 assists on 33 made baskets. Having four players with at least 10 points did not prove to be sustainable.
The numbers in their first game this season were dramatically different. The Wildcats went 8-for-19 from 3-point distance against CSUN. They connected on 34 total shots. Twenty-seven of those shots came on an assist.
Despite having much better size than NAU last season, Arizona barely outrebounded them 48-46 in that opening game. This has been an ongoing issue for the team over the past several seasons. The Wildcats gave all indications that it was no longer an issue as they won the boards 43-21 against CSUN.
One problem that hasn’t gone away is unreliable free-throw shooting. The Wildcats shot just 4 of 7 from the line on Tuesday. That’s not going to get things done against better teams.
Barnes gave every indication that the starting lineup of Shaina Pellington, Bendu Yeaney, Sam Thomas, Cate Reese, and Lauren Ware is set for now. How long she sticks with it and how the rotations work are the questions now.
If her college debut was any indication, it will be very difficult to keep Aaronette Vonleh off the floor. The need for shooting means that Taylor Chavez and Madi Conner will be needed sooner rather than later against the best teams. But who else will see the floor and for how long is the challenge for Barnes.
“It’s not realistic to play everybody, especially against the No. 6 team in the country,” Barnes said. “So it’ll look different, but I’m excited to see how people fulfill those roles. Because it’s also going to look different now than it will in 10 games, because things change, and I just have to figure out the best pieces, and the best cohesiveness on the court. And I don’t know yet completely. I know our starters, but I don’t know the next because it’s kind of changing.”
When and where is the game?
The game is in Sioux Falls, SD at the Sanford Pentagon as part of the Mammoth Sports Construction Invitational. It tips off at 2:30 p.m. MST.
How can you watch?
The game will be aired on ESPNU.
How can you listen on the radio?
The game is available on the radio at 1400 AM (KTUC). Brody Dryden is on the call.
Where can you get stats?
Stats are available at http://pentagon.sidearmsports.com/sidearmstats/mbball/summary;team=away