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Arizona women’s basketball notebook: On the WBCA poll, Sam Thomas’ CLASS, rescheduling games, and Adia Barnes in another coaching discussion

arizona-wildcats-womens-basketball-uc-riverside-highlanders-2021-covid-cancellation-paradise-jam Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona women’s basketball will finally get back on the court against an opponent on Thursday, Dec. 9 when the team faces the North Dakota State Bison. UC Riverside canceled its Dec. 3 meeting with Arizona due to COVID-19 concerns within the UCR program. That left a 12-day gap on the Wildcats' schedule. Despite the long absence from the court, off-court stories continue to unfold.

The lack of consistent protocols for canceled games

Arizona isn’t the only school dealing with an opponent who canceled a game due to COVID-19. There’s some degree of confusion and consternation surrounding these games because there’s no consistent NCAA policy that addresses how teams should proceed. Even coaches aren’t always clear on what the rules are. Andrea Gorski, the head coach of the Bradley Braves, recently took to Twitter asking the NCAA to give some guidance and consistency for out-of-league games.

Barnes has been dealing with that lack of consistency, as well. The Pac-12 adopted a rule that allows the teams to reschedule the missed game or the conference to call it a forfeit by the team that requests the cancelation, but that only applies to games played between conference opponents. Barnes was under the impression that the forfeiture rule applied to all games, but that is not the case.

Even when conference season rolls around, the decisions won’t be consistent. On the men’s side, different teams are already taking different routes.

Rescheduling means causing logjams on the schedule, but dropping a game can mean losing out on important gate receipts or a win that could help a team get to the NCAA Tournament. This was the dilemma faced by Arizona men’s basketball when it opted to reschedule the home game that Washington canceled. For the men’s program, keeping that date in McKale was very important because of the revenue generated by Arizona men’s basketball.

The decision made by one school isn’t necessarily going to be made by another. The Washington men’s team also had to cancel its home game against UCLA. The Bruins have opted not to make a separate trip to Seattle to play at another time, so that game will be an automatic loss for the Huskies.

When the games are nonconference affairs, though, those rules don’t apply. Even Barnes wasn’t aware of that. She thought the UC Riverside game would be a forfeit, but it didn’t work out that way. In this case, the game is simply marked “canceled” and everyone moves on. She wasn’t sure whether she could schedule a game with someone else, either. Ultimately, she decided it was better to take the time off and just practice.

“I turned to (the other teams UCR was scheduled to play) and said, ‘Hey, do you want to play?’” Barnes said. “But they couldn’t. And for me, it’s not worth changing dates. I couldn’t get a game in like four or five days, and it’s not worth changing dates and playing like a back-to-back or affecting our schedule for that.”

Everyone is in agreement

The coaches of the WBCA were the first to show confidence in the Arizona Wildcats this year. While many in the media kept Arizona off their preseason rankings, the coaches had them solidly in the middle at No. 15 heading into the season. As the Wildcats picked up steam in the regular season, though, the coaches were slow to respond.

The Associated Press quickly changed course. The Wildcats jumped 11 spots to No. 11 after their opening-week win over then-No. 6 Louisville. The next week, the Wildcats were in the Top 10.

As of Monday, Dec. 6, Arizona was among the top 11 in every metric available. The Wildcats were No. 6 in the first NET rankings of the season, They had climbed to No. 6 in the AP poll, matching the program's highest ranking ever. Even notoriously Eastern-focused ESPN had Arizona as high as No. 5 in its power rankings and projected as a No. 1 seed in Charlie Creme’s bracketology. It was now the coaches who were trailing everyone else, keeping Arizona outside the Top 10.

That finally changed on Tuesday. The new USA Today/WBCA poll has the Wildcats exactly at No. 10 despite the fact that the team didn’t play last week. They join Stanford (4), Oregon State (20), Oregon (22), and UCLA (25) in this week’s Top 25. That list is considerably different than the AP poll, which no longer ranks the three-loss Oregon Ducks or 5-2 UCLA, but does rank 9-0 Colorado at No. 25.

The CLASS of Sam Thomas

In her super senior season, wing Sam Thomas is stepping into the national public eye more. She was preseason All-Pac-12, and she landed on the preseason watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award to honor the country’s best small forward. Now, she is one of the 30 seniors in women’s basketball to be nominated for the Senior CLASS Award.

The award takes the entire student-athlete’s role into account. The winner represents excellence in the “four C’s”: community, classroom, character, and competition.

Social media, the Phoenix Mercury, and Adia Barnes

The world of social media has done a lot for Arizona women’s basketball and Barnes. The coach has searched for games, implored fans to show up, sold out McKale Center, and even auctioned her husband on social media.

The world of women’s basketball social media has its challenges, though. Every time a job in the world of college basketball opens, someone inevitably gets social media hits by suggesting that Barnes is a candidate. That seemed to come to an end when she signed her newest contract, which pays her an average of over $1 million per year.

Anyone who thought the constant clamoring for someone to hire Barnes away from Arizona had ended was mistaken. It just moved to the world of professional women’s basketball.

The WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury parted ways with long-time head coach Sandy Brondello on Monday. Immediately, there were suggestions that Barnes should be the next coach.

The practice of throwing Barnes’ name at any job opening in the country has become habitual, a kind of reflex action by the national press, since Arizona won the WNIT in 2019. It only grew more fevered last spring after she led the Wildcats to the national title game.

The calls for her to go to the WNBA are probably the least likely. The top coaches in NCAA women’s basketball make millions of dollars. Barnes was given two significant bumps in pay in 2021, the final one pushing her into seven figures.

Next season, the top salaries for the Mercury's players will be Diana Taurasi at $228,094 and both Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith at $227,900. Diggins-Smith will eventually make $234,350 in 2023. Neither WNBA players nor coaches are making millions.

Beyond the pay, Barnes’ ties to Phoenix—both the city and the Mercury organization—are negligible. While national writers equate Phoenix and Arizona, Tucsonans do not. Barnes returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona because she went to school here. She had ties to this school and this city. Beyond her nuclear family, she does not have relatives in the state.

In her professional career, Barnes never played for the Mercury. Her WNBA career had stops in Sacramento, Cleveland, Minnesota, and Seattle. The Mercury do not hold the kind of connection that the Seattle Storm and Arizona Wildcats do.

There is a former Wildcat who would make a great fit, though, and she’s been part of the Mercury organization since 2005. Is Julie Hairgrove ready to make that jump?