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Arizona women’s basketball notebook: On ESPN games, scheduling, and more

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

The Arizona Wildcats are in Flagstaff preparing to play the NAU Lumberjacks on Friday. There’s a lot more going on around the program, though. Head coach Adia Barnes talked about some of the hot topics on Wednesday.

Playing Texas in Las Vegas

Arizona traveled to Austin two years ago to take on the Longhorns. It was a coming-out party as the Wildcats knocked Texas out of the Associated Press poll for the first time in 77 weeks. Aari McDonald dominated with 44 points. Texas was supposed to return the favor and play in McKale last year.

A change of coaches and the pandemic upset those plans, but Barnes said that Texas head coach Vic Schaefer will still be bringing his team to Tucson to fulfill the home-and-home agreement. It just so happened that the cancelation of the return game this season didn’t mean that the two teams weren’t going to meet at all.

“We agreed to this Coast-to-Coast tournament,” Barnes said. “The Pac-12 asked us about it and I thought it was a great opportunity to get a nationally televised game before Christmas with another powerhouse. So at first, I didn’t know who we were going to play there. And then they gave us a couple of different options, and it ended up being Texas. So although we postponed our home game, the return for them, we ended up playing them in the Christmas tournament. So they’re going to also come here next year. So we’ll play them three out of four years.”

In-state games

Arizona will play Texas three out of four years, but one team they won’t be playing is Grand Canyon University. Barnes is not pleased about that.

The Wildcats worked out a three-year deal with NAU that has the Lumberjacks coming to Tucson twice and Arizona playing in Flagstaff once. Barnes’ team hosted New Mexico last week. The coach thinks those games are important for both ease of travel and cost, especially during the pandemic when so many athletic departments have had to cut budgets and jobs. That makes her very frustrated about GCU refusing to play, especially since the Arizona schools have fewer options for opponents who are within driving distance than schools in other parts of the country do.

“As a head coach running a program that’s obviously conscious of your budget and the travel and all those things—which we should be—you always want to play in-state,” Barnes said. “So New Mexico makes sense. (Mike) Bradbury’s a good coach, not afraid to play people. So that’s something that we should have long-standing. We’ve been trying for years to get a game with GCU. Haven’t been successful, but it makes sense. It’s an-hour-and-a-half down the road and so it makes sense to play GCU. And to me, those are things that ADs should get together and look at it fiscally and make us play each other. And I think that makes sense because it saves both of us a lot of money and over a couple of years to save $25,000 or so, that’s a lot of money in a women’s program.”

What is the relevance of games on ESPN?

Prior to last year, the Arizona women had never played a regular-season game on the ESPN family of networks. Sunday’s game will be the fourth Arizona game televised on an ESPN network since Jan. 14, 2021, in addition to a few that have been played on ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN+. Do those games make a difference when it comes to recruiting and national buzz?

“It doesn’t help us any more than going to a championship game,” Barnes said. “But I think it just gives us national exposure. I think a lot of people don’t watch the Pac-12...there’s the East Coast bias for sure. It’s getting better, but games like these, I think put us on the map because you’re like, ‘Oh, Arizona is pretty good.’ Because last year, no one knew who we were, and then we kind of stepped up.”

Super seniors

Juggling super seniors will become a bigger deal for college coaches next season. This year, teams were allowed to bring back their own super seniors without those players counting against the 15-scholarship limit; players who transferred in were counted against the limit just as they always have been. Beginning in the 2022-23 season, players can still come back for the extra year granted by the NCAA, but they will count against the limit regardless of where they play.

Barnes has some planning to do. It has already been announced that Cate Reese will return next year. After the Wildcats’ exhibition game against Arizona Christian, the head coach said that Arizona was considering bringing back as many as two more.

“We’re going to be returning a few people that are key players for us,” Barnes said on Nov. 5. “We’re not talking about it yet just because it hasn’t officially happened but to have our core—so, these freshmen become sophomores, then we add three more (recruits), and then we return like probably two or three super seniors. I think we have a chance to be good for a few years. So the future’s bright for Arizona.”

Arizona has since added a fourth recruit with the verbal commitment of five-star guard Paris Clark. On Wednesday, Barnes also revealed who the possible returning super seniors are, and the hopes she has for those players to lead her stellar recruiting class.

“(The recruits are) gonna make us a lot better in the backcourt,” Barnes said. “And then you add returners or veterans like Shaina (Pellington) and Bendu (Yeaney), our core is really strong.”

If things unfold as expected, that would mean that Pellington and Yeaney join Reese as super seniors. Fellow guard Taylor Chavez is also in her fourth year of college basketball this season, but she is listed as a junior on Arizona’s roster. That would give the Wildcats four fifth-year players on next year’s team.

Barnes hastened to say that nothing is written in stone yet. That’s likely because the return of both Pellington and Yeaney in addition to the four-member freshman class would put the Wildcats over the scholarship limit by one next season.

“We haven’t really talked about that yet, but that’s what we’re anticipating some returners,” Barnes said on Dec. 15. “But just waiting till the end of the year before we talk about that and see how things play out because we don’t really have a lot of space. So now that we’re finished with our ‘22, then we can start to see how the roster shapes out because we have a lot of people.”

Arizona has lost players from the end of the bench every season. Three have transferred out each of the past two years due to lack of playing time. Some have waited until the end of the season, while others have left in the first semester to get a jump on future eligibility elsewhere. Barnes stressed that she hopes the current freshmen choose to stay.

“The younger players, they’re on a really good team,” she said. “So I hope that they stick it out and just stay and improve versus wanting to leave and go and play somewhere because I think a lot of them are the future. And players like Gisela (Sanchez) and Anna Gret (Asi), they’re just going to get better and get more experienced and they can be really good players. So I hope that our younger players stick it out.”