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Arizona women's basketball is good — really good — and that should be no surprise

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 15 Women’s - Texas Southern at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If you were one of the people who thought the Arizona women’s basketball program would fall off from last season now that Aari McDonald is in the WNBA, you are forgiven.

After all, Arizona’s sudden rise from bottom-dweller to mere inches away from being national champions seemed to happen because of McDonald, who left campus as the program’s career leader in points per game while collecting 2021 Pac-12 Player of the Year honors and being named an AP All-American thrice.

She was also the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the year in 2021 and 2020, and garnered numerous other accolades that if all were listed here, this story would go on and on and on and on and on ...

Suffice to say, she was great, and Arizona would not have reached the heights it did last season without her.

But just because she’s gone does not mean the Cats will fall. Adia Barnes’ current team is different, yes, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be any worse.

In fact, early indications are Arizona is once again a team that must be reckoned with, already rising to No. 11 in the nation and showing no signs of slowing down.

How can that be?

How could a program that last season made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005 and as recently as 2017-18 won just six games not rebuild, but reload after losing so much?

Well you see, Arizona’s rise wasn’t all that sudden. Ever since Barnes took over the program was on a steady climb, with each of the last three seasons showing incremental, tangible improvement. Were they truly the second-best team in the nation last year? Had that last shot fallen the Wildcats would have been the champions, but does anyone believe there was no better team in the country?

Last year’s squad went on a magical run, one that should and will not soon be forgotten. That they fell a bucket short did nothing to diminish what was accomplished; to the contrary, everything about what transpired during that tournament helped get the program to where it is right now.

Falling short and losing a star provided no opportunity for complacency of any kind to set in, and if anything it likely made both coach and players that much more hungry.

So they went to work over the offseason, retooling their style and games to fit this season’s team. Barnes had to create an offense that would be more team-oriented and work without a dominant guard, while the players had to evolve and be able to do things they were not necessarily asked to do before.

That they’ve appeared to have successfully done it, all while Barnes and staff went out and landed the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history, serves as even more evidence of the fact that besides not being a fluke, Arizona women’s basketball is not going anywhere.

Three games into this season, with a win over formerly-No. 6 Louisville, Arizona looks like a big, athletic, balanced team.

Whereas last season one player (McDonald) accounted for roughly 31 percent of Arizona’s offensive output in scoring 20.6 points per game, so far this season the leading scorer Cate Reese accounts for just 21 percent at 16.7 points per outing. The Cats are making threes at a better clip, and they’re pulling down more rebounds than they did last season, too.

Oh, and they’re averaging nearly 14 more points per game while allowing about eight fewer.

Now, it’s very early in the season and many of these numbers are going to change. The schedule will toughen up — especially once conference play begins — and there will most certainly be some rough points.

The team will need to truly learn who it can lean on in late-game situations. Whereas last season the ball would go to McDonald, this year there are a bevy of options for whom the last shot, or a big shot, could be taken by. Against Louisville it was Bendu Yeaney who had the ball in her hands, and she looked both confident and capable of getting the job done.

Next game it might be Reese, who has been excellent this season, though perhaps Sam Thomas or Shaina Pellington will get the ball. It could also be a much-improved Lauren Ware, or the sharp-shooting Taylor Chavez or really anyone on the roster, because it is filled with talented players.

And that’s the point.

Arizona can’t truly know what it will do and who it can rely on in big moments, at least not yet. But perhaps the even greater point is this team likely has many players it can rely on, which will make them more difficult to defend in big moments.

That’s the idea behind this year’s team, which to the surprise of many is probably even better than the one that came within a few inches of winning an NCAA Championship.

Anyone who has paid attention knew the Wildcats would be good again this season; they were too talented and too deep not to be. The question that still needs to be answered is if they are good enough to make a run at a Pac-12 title and go deep into March, and while we won’t know for a little while the guess here is they very much are.