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What we learned from Arizona women’s basketball’s nonconference season

Stanford v Arizona Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Arizona women’s basketball has officially finished its nonconference season with a 10-0 record. With no games scheduled until Dec. 31 when the Wildcats travel to USC, it’s time to take stock of the first part of the year. What did we learn about the team heading into Pac-12 play?

The program has survived the loss of the greatest player in its history

When Aari McDonald had her name called in the 2021 WNBA Draft, it was a scary time for Arizona women’s basketball. It was good publicity to have a player from Arizona drafted at No. 3, but it was also a time of worrying about what came next. Could the Wildcats maintain their status as a top-tier team not only in the Pac-12 but on the national stage?

The answer has been a resounding, “Yes!” Not only has the program survived, but it has continued to thrive.

Head coach Adia Barnes has argued that despite the loss of the greatest player in Arizona history, the team as a whole is better. She has been shown to be correct. It has more depth, more balance, more shooting acumen, and a better offense. Meanwhile, it has also maintained its status as a superior defensive team.

According to stats site Her Hoop Stats, Arizona is making four more baskets and scoring just under eight more points per game this season than it did last season. Three-point shooting has improved to 36.1 percent as a team compared to 33.7 percent last year.

The defensive numbers have also improved. The Wildcats have 2.3 more steals and 1.7 more blocks per game than they did last year. Meanwhile, opponents are scoring 5.6 fewer points on 2.6 fewer baskets. Arizona is allowing the opposition to make fewer assists while forcing more turnovers.

There is an important caveat. Last season, Arizona played almost exclusively against other Pac-12 teams. This season, they had a true nonconference season with some lesser competition. However, the Pac-12 is not as strong this year as it has been in recent history. Can the Wildcats maintain their numbers?

The questions about the backcourt have largely been answered

Related to the first lesson, Arizona’s backcourt situation has not been the problem that many foresaw heading into the season. Shaina Pellington and Bendu Yeaney have shown that they can play together in most situations. While Yeaney has received a lot of praise for her improved shot that keeps the opponent from simply standing in the paint and daring the team to shoot 3-pointers that they can’t hit, it’s actually Pellington who has shown the most growth in that area.

With 10 games played, the Wildcats’ starting point guard is shooting 35.7 percent from beyond the arc with 1.4 three-point attempts per game. In 2-point land, she’s hitting 45.7 percent. Overall, she’s good for a shooting percentage of 43.7 from the floor.

Those numbers are massive improvements over last season when she hit a dismal 5.3 percent of her 3-pointers while taking 0.7 per game. Pellington has already attempted 14 three-point shots in 10 games this season while taking 19 in all 27 games last year.

So far, this season is far and away Pellington’s best from an outside-shooting perspective. Even during her sophomore season at Oklahoma, she connected on just 13.7 percent of her outside shots while attempting 2.2 per game.

Yeaney has also seen considerable improvement, but it’s not on the same level as Pellington’s gains. While she hit 39.4 percent of her 3-point shots during her freshman season at Indiana, Yeaney has been in the 20s ever since. As a sophomore, she hit just 20.7 percent. When she moved to Arizona last season, she connected on 24.2 percent of her 1.2 three-point attempts per game. She has nudged that up to 27.8 percent on 1.8 3PA per game this season.

What will it take to improve the free-throw shooting?

As a team, free throws are a big problem for the Wildcats. The team is converting on 66 percent of its free throws, putting it in the 26th percentile of Division I women’s basketball according to Her Hoop Stats.

So far, five players have had double-digit free-throw attempts this season: Cate Reese, Koi Love, Shaina Pellington, Lauren Ware, and Ariyah Copeland. Of that group, only Reese and Love hit at least 70 percent of their foul shots, and Reese at 71.4 percent is just barely over that mark.

The biggest problem for Pellington is that driving to the hoop and getting fouled is a major part of her scoring potential, but she’s leaving a lot of free points on the table. She is hitting just 56.5 percent of her free throws. That’s the lowest of the starters by a considerable margin. With 23 attempts, that means she’s failed to make good on 10 free points.

For the good news, Love is showing that she can not only draw a lot of fouls in relatively few minutes on the floor, but she can also make good on those opportunities. The transfer has been to the line 13 times this season despite averaging just 12.9 minutes per game. She has converted on 84.6 percent of those attempts. The only regular rotation player who hits a higher percentage is Sam Thomas who has hit 87.5 percent of her eight free throws this season.

The Wildcats hope to get back on the court on Dec. 31. Whether COVID-19 lets them or not is the question.