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5 questions about Arizona women’s basketball as the postseason nears

TUCSON, ARIZ. — Aari McDonald (2), Sam Thomas (14) and Trinity Baptiste (0) at their senior day celebration after Arizona Women’s Basketball vs. Washington at McKale Center. Feb. 14, 2021.
Simon Asher / Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats have concluded their final home games of the 2020-21 season. They’ve mostly navigated the pandemic through the first 16 contests.

They’ve beaten Top 10 teams. They’ve lost to an unranked team. They’ve been blown out by Stanford. They’ve blown out Oregon twice.

What are the questions hovering around this team as they head down the stretch of the Pac-12 season and then on into the postseason?

Why are the Wildcats so streaky?

The Wildcats got hot from outside against Washington on Valentine’s Day. The team hit 12 of the 16 shots they launched from beyond the arc. They looked like world-beaters from outside.

Talk about a drastic change.

Two days earlier against Washington State, those same Wildcats went 2 for 13 from long distance. It was a formula that could have proved disastrous.

In a nutshell, that is how it has gone for Arizona from 3-point distance this season. In four of their 16 games, they shot less than 20 percent from outside the line. In six more, that shooting percentage was under 35 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Wildcats have made good on at least 40 percent of those long-distance shots in four contests. In each of the games where Arizona has been extremely successful from outside, the team has launched at least 15 3s. It really has been a case of feast or famine.

“I don’t love the inconsistency,” Arizona head coach Adia Barnes said after the win over Washington. “Last game, (we were) awful from the 3-point line. This game, then, hot. But I like the fact that we’re able to do it.”

What happens if those 3s aren’t falling?

The question for the Wildcats is what happens when they can’t hit those outside shots. So far, it hasn’t cost them much.

It’s true that Arizona shot just 24 percent from distance when Stanford annihilated the Wildcats in McKale Center. That was the least of their problems that day, though.

The Wildcats shot just 25.8 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from the free-throw line in that game. Better shooting from outside might have helped, but it was just one indication of the Cardinal’s dominance.

The Washington State game demonstrated that the Wildcats can beat a quality team even when the shots don’t fall from 3-point land. Despite having their second-worst performance from distance this season, Arizona won by nine points.

That doesn’t answer all the questions, though.

What happens against a Top 10 team?

Yes, the Wildcats can beat a quality team that hovers just outside the Top 25 even if they don’t shoot well from outside, but what about an elite team?

Arizona has been successful this season against ranked teams. They are 3-1 in their four games against teams in the Top 15. That includes two blowout wins over the Oregon Ducks.

In those four games, the Wildcats only shot well from outside in the second game against Oregon. In Eugene, they hit 60 percent of those outside shots, going 9-for-15 from distance.

Against both UCLA and Stanford, Arizona hit just 24 percent of those shots. In their first game against Oregon, the Wildcats were good on 31.3 percent.

Arizona might get by teams in the first two or three rounds even if the shots aren’t falling. The problem, as their loss to Washington State showed, is that they can also lose a heartbreaker in the same situation.

What about those free throws?

It isn’t just the outside shooting that can sometimes go sideways for the Wildcats. The team has also had inconsistent streaks at the charity stripe.

Last season, Arizona shot 77.9 percent from the free-throw line. So far this season, they’re hitting just 70.6 percent of those shots.

In six of their 16 games, the Wildcats have shot under 70 percent from the line. In half of those games, they hit 60 percent or less.

It has cost them, too. When Stanford defeated Arizona by 27 points, the Wildcats failed to put eight free points on the board. The Cardinal sent them to the line 22 times, but the team could only connect on 14 of those freebies.

And it’s not just a one-time affair. The loss to Stanford came during a streak of three games when Arizona shot under 70 percent from the free throw line. That bottomed out with the season’s worst performance of the year when they hit just 45.5 percent of their free throws against Idaho.

It was also the first of two such streaks. Prior to connecting on 76.9 percent of their free throws in Eugene on Feb. 8, the Wildcats were on another three-game streak where they went 66.7 percent or worse from the line.

Part of that has been some poor shooting from the line from newcomers, but that doesn’t explain all of it. McDonald has seen a slight decrease in her accuracy, falling from 78.8 percent in 2019-20 to 75.7 percent this year.

Cate Reese has also seen a drop in her free throw success. The junior shot 80.2 percent last season. This year, that has fallen considerably to 73.7 percent.

While both numbers are still good, they leave the Wildcats more vulnerable to streaks of poor free-throw shooting when teammates struggle. Newcomers Shaina Pellington (48.6), Lauren Ware (66.7) and Bendu Yeaney (58.3) all get at least 1.3 free throw attempts per game with Pellington (2.3) getting the most attempts per game.

An improvement in free throw percentage could help insulate the Wildcats on those nights when the 3-point shooting goes cold.

Who comes back?

Barnes said heading into the weekend that her three biggest recruits were her three seniors. Is there a legitimate chance that any of them come back for their “super senior” season?

Barnes certainly thinks so, but she is realistic in her assessment that Aari McDonald will not be one of those returners.

After the game, McDonald tweeted her gratitude to the city of Tucson. At the podium, she referred to “our last game here” when answering a question about what she would take from her experience in McKale Center over her career.

You didn’t have to know that she only came back to college this season due to her injury and the COVID-19 situation to read the subtext.

Yes, the Wildcats would be phenomenal if McDonald came back. They might be a title favorite. No, it’s not likely to happen.

If Barnes is right that she will have at least one returnee, who might that be?

Sam Thomas is the only player on the team who has appeared in every game for the past four years. While McDonald has also spent the last four years at Arizona, she was sitting out her transfer year when Thomas was already carrying a big load as a freshman on a team in transition.

Would Thomas be open to coming back? In what could be a first, she let a tiny bit of her frustration show after the senior day victory.

Thomas is not prone to negativity. She is one of the most unfailingly positive people in the program and always has been. Even during the six-win season of her freshman year, her public face was one of hope and happiness.

On Sunday, she exposed a touch of the hardship of the pandemic season when she responded to a question about how Barnes could convince her to come back.

“Maybe tell her to tell COVID to go away and that might help me a lot,” Thomas said with a laugh that didn’t completely cover the seriousness of her statement.

Baptiste cried after the game as Barnes presented her with her framed jersey.

“I said, ‘Trinity, no need to cry. You can come back next year. We can do it all over again,’” Barnes said.

But first the Wildcats have many more games to play this year.