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Former Arizona head coach Joan Bonvicini weighs in on NCAA Tournament, Adia Barnes’ rise, and the keys to advancing

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NCAA Women’s Basketball - Arizona vs Oregon - January 22, 2004 Photo by Tom Hauck/Getty Images

Adia Barnes and the Arizona women’s basketball team are heading back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. Who better to discuss it with than Joan Bonvicini?

The winningest coach in UA history, Bonvicini was at the helm that season and also coached Barnes in the late-1990s. She is also an analyst for the Pac-12 Network and is well-versed on the current landscape of the sport.

I caught up with Bonvicini, who now doubles as a financial services professional at New York Life, to talk about Arizona’s upcoming NCAA Tournament run, the keys to advancing, Barnes’ rise as a head coach, Aari McDonald’s career and lots more. Here is the full 27-minute interview along with the transcript.

Joan Bonvicini interview

Our Ryan Kelapire caught up with former Arizona Women's Basketball coach and current Pac-12 Network analyst Joan Bonvicini to discuss the NCAA Tournament, Adia Barnes' rise to stardom and lots more

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Ryan Kelapire: Obviously Monday was a big day for the program. It’s officially in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. What do you think is the significance of that?

Joan Bonvicini: “Oh my goodness. It is a long time coming. Adia has done a fabulous job. I mean, when you really look at—so this is her fifth year from where they started and what she took over, to where they are: a No. 11, Top 10, Top 15 team, one of the best players in the country. It’s really nothing short of remarkable.”

RK: And what is it like for you to not only see the program having success again, but that it’s one of your former players in your position and leading the way?

JB: “It’s really fun. It’s fun for me to see her have success. It’s really rewarding that someone I coached and mentored, and watch her really grow as a woman, as a mom, as a leader, it’s really rewarding. And to watch her grow in the position. She’s in her fifth year and still a young coach as far as her career goes, but she’s really turned into a really good coach. Makes really good decisions. Not just game-wise, I mean just running her whole program of who she hires, how she works with players, how she works with the community. She’s done a fabulous job.”

RK: Yeah, I was going to ask you what has made Adia so successful in this position. Because she didn’t have any head coaching experience when she took over this job and the program wasn’t in a good place.

JB: “Yeah, she talked to me about the job and I was concerned, to be honest. I mean, I never would say don’t take the job but I was concerned because I knew I had an idea of what she was getting into. And because she didn’t have head coaching experience, it was going to be hard. But Adia, and she was like this as a player, don’t ever doubt her or underestimate her. She has, in a good way, a chip on her shoulder and a way of saying, ‘I’m going to show you.’ Like, she’s really competitive. So when other schools in the conference thought, and they did, they didn’t have a lot of respect for Arizona, just don’t make yourself that bad. I mean, she took it personal and it’s been fabulous watching the whole process.

“I mean, I’m not just a women’s basketball fan but I’m an Aari McDonald fan. I absolutely love watching her play. And I tell Adia when we talk, and we’re pretty close, when you have an opportunity to coach someone that special, you just want to really appreciate it. And one of the reasons, to answer your question, why she’s done so well is because she’s a relationship-first person. And what that means is she takes the time to really build relationships, definitely with her players and staff, people at the university, both in the athletic department and outside, and in the community and across the country. I mean, Adia is really well respected at a lot of different ways in different places around not just the country, the world.”

RK: So, what kind of advice did you give Adia when she took the job? You said you were concerned.

JB: “I was, and she did hire (an assistant) with more experience and that lasted a little bit. And I think Adia has grown into the job. She needed people that had a little bit different experience than her, and she’s changed. Obviously Salvo (Coppa)’s been the constant and Salvo’s a really good coach. But with Jackie (Nared) and Tamisha (Augustin), they’re great. And I think more than anything, the best advice I can give Adia and other people when they hire is hire people that are loyal to you and that complement you. You don’t want people who are good at what you do, too. You want people to complement what are maybe not necessarily your weaknesses, but aren’t necessarily your real strengths, and Adia has a good staff. But she’s good at a lot of different things and that’s the difference from being an assistant to head coach. As an assistant, I always tell assistant coaches you’ve got to be good at one of two things—you’ve got to be a great recruiter and/or you’re great at developing players. And when you’re good at both, then you start becoming head coach material.”

RK: And then what do you think about Adia on the marketing side of things and the way she has been able to get the fans to buy into the program? Like how she used Twitter to get thousands of fans to their WNIT games a couple of years ago.

JB: “She’s really sharp on social media. And it’s not that she always asked for things, because she’s very transparent about herself, sharing things about her family. People feel, and genuinely so, a definite connection to her. Like they feel like they know her. And part of the reason is because she went out in the community where a lot of other coaches don’t and they should. She’s giving of herself. She gives time, she volunteers, she brings her players with her. That’s one of the reasons why the community responded when she asked for people to come and they found a product in these young women that it was fun to watch and a great atmosphere. I mean, it’s been a pretty remarkable story.”

RK: When you were coaching Adia, did you ever see her having a career path like this?

JB: “You know, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, I didn’t see this. I mean, I really thought she was a great player and had a lot of respect for her, and we’ve always been very close and she had a tremendous pro career, but she’s a good businesswoman, too. And that was important and she transitioned into broadcasting, and she was good at that too. She’s good at whatever she puts her hand in. And then she had the opportunity to grow into being an assistant at Washington. And it’s different when people say ‘yeah, I want to be assistant’ when she realized really all the responsibilities. So she grew into that job and one of the things that she was good at right away was recruiting and developing relationships. But she learned all the other aspects of the job. And for her to be asked to be a head coach that quickly tells you a little bit about Adia.”

RK: What kind of advice have you given her about coaching in the NCAA Tournament? She has been there as an assistant, but never as a head coach.

JB: “It is really important to focus on one game, don’t look ahead. And for myself, I’ve been able to win a lot of games in the tournament and advance. And how I did that was really just talk to the players about one game. Don’t talk about other games. It’s this game and this is how we’re going to beat them and this is what we need to do. So, all of your preparation is about them. Assign another assistant to the next games but you’re not talking about those at all. And respect the opponent you’re playing. And that’s all you’re doing and focus on them.

“And the thing about the NCAA Tournament, it’s all about matchups. The teams that advance are the teams that respect the opponent. But a lot of it is how your game and how you play compared to the other team. I don’t know a lot about Stony Brook. I believe this is their first time in the tournament but I’ll tell you, you better respect everybody. And I think particularly this year more than others, there’s going to be more upsets both on the women and men side because of COVID. It’s just made it very unusual. But I think that Arizona is well prepared for the quality of teams that they’ve played.”

RK: What have you thought about Arizona’s season to this point?

JB: “I think they’ve had a fabulous season, Obviously losing to Stanford twice is not a big deal. And then losing to UCLA once. Obviously Washington State was in upset, but they’re in the tournament and that one player (Charlisse Leger-Walker) is really good. And obviously the one at ASU, you don’t like to lose to your rival but I’ve got to get Arizona State credit. That was absolutely the best game they played all year. But (Arizona)’s had really good season and I think the key for them moving forward is, as I said, preparing for one game but a little bit more detailed is you know Aari is going to step up. She’s been consistent double figures. It’s amazing, I mean, I think she’s at 87 or 88 (games in a row), something like that. That’s crazy when you think about it, to be that consistent. Defensively, they are at an elite level, I believe. But it’s really about everyone else stepping up.

“Like, all the starters need to be double figures or more. Cate (Reese) needs to be 12 to 20, honestly. The other starters around double digits. And off the bench some kids need to come in and look (for their shot). You know, they’re there for a reason. Off the bench they bring energy, but like (Helena) Pueyo needs to come in ready to shoot it. I like Lauren Ware a lot. She hasn’t scored very much but I think she’s capable of scoring double figures. And (Shaina) Pellington can come in and get six to 10 points. So you know Aari is going to be there, and she could go off for big numbers, but I like her when she’s averaging her 20 points a game and she’s distributing because she’s a really good passer too.”

RK: There has been a lot of talk about the recent offensive struggles and that seems to be the big concern heading into the tournament. What can Arizona do to improve or get things back on track on that side of the ball?

JB: “I really value, I look at a couple stats. And one is getting more assists. I’d like to see them getting more assists as a team. That means two things—you’re sharing the ball and your teammates are making shots. So I’d like to see that up and definitely their rebound numbers go up. If they do that, I think their scoring will be more balanced. Because when they’re hitting on cylinders, they can beat just about anybody. I know Adia was disappointed. You lose to Stanford, and then you lose to ASU. That was hard. And then they won their first game in the Pac-12 Tournament, then they lose to UCLA, and it’s usually when they lose it’s their shooting percentages are down and there’s not as much balance in scoring. So other players need to step up.”

RK: You touched on Aari and the career she’s had at Arizona. What’s been most impressive about it to you?

JB: “Well, I think a couple things. First of all, she didn’t come in here, or to Washington, as a five-star recruit. She was a good player with a lot of potential and we’re being generous when we say she’s 5-6. To see her improvement from where she was at Washington to Arizona, and to be able to consistently perform every game in double figures, is remarkable. And she basically put the team and the program on her back. And there is no coincidence that the rise of Arizona women’s basketball had two things in common: One, Adia Barnes was hired and second is Aari McDonald made the decision to come to Arizona. She’s developed as a player amazing. Her scoring, ability to finish in traffic, her defense. Because a lot of good players, scorers don’t want to play defense. They’re all about scoring and I think—and this why she’s gonna be a good pro—she can not only shoot it, she can score and create her own shot. But she also takes as much pleasure in distributing and getting a good assist as she does when she scores. But she’s an elite defender. There’s quick and then there’s Aari quick. It’s scary.”

RK: What do you remember most from the NCAA Tournament in 2005? (That was Arizona’s last appearance. They made the second round for the first time since 2000.)

JB: “Well, we were overdue. I like to win and we had good teams with [Shawntinice Polk] but we just hadn’t played well to win those games. I know when we played her freshman year (2003), we lost to Notre Dame (in the first round). We didn’t play well. And we lost to Michigan State that year (2004) in, I think, the first round and Michigan State was good. Michigan State was a good team. But the next year, we were just overdue, I don’t think [Polk] was at her best health wise, but we won. It was a close game against Oklahoma. And then unfortunately [Polk] didn’t play (against LSU). She had some injuries. And then obviously the next year she passed away, but it was really great for the team to win that game and feel good, and we got pretty much laid out against LSU. LSU had gone to multiple Final Fours in a row.

“But when you go to the NCAA Tournament, and I remember very distinctly coaching Adia and that first time we went (in 1997), I believe we played Western Kentucky her junior year, and won our first game pretty handily in the tournament, a lot of it is from the coach on down. Like, I created those expectations for the players that we expected to win. I believe that’s really important. I tried to instill confidence and empower the players, and Adia does it her own way and is obviously very successful. But good coaches try to empower the players and the people around them.

“But going to the tournament is really fun. Obviously this experience is going to be different. There’ll be fans, but not the same kind of experience. It’s a lot different when you’re a fan versus being a participant, but it’s something that these players will never forget. It’s also the new bar for the team and the program. Because once you go, that’s the bar. And so you expect to go all the time and every team, depending on how far this team goes, every team that Adia coaches at Arizona, and for her personally, that will be the expectation—to do as well or better.”

RK: How sustainable do you think Arizona’s success is?

JB: “That’s the difference of having a good team and a good program—is you’re constantly trying to get back to being as good or better than the previous team. I think she’s done a really good job. I mean, she has two five-star recruits that are already in the program. I know she has some good players coming in. She’s a really good recruiter. What recruiting is relationships, but really it’s about understanding as a coach what you like and recruiting the players that fit your system. Recruiting is not a science. I mean, I’ve hit home runs and then I’ve struck out good players, so you’ve got to find people that fit in. She’s done a really good job. But for all these kids that are there right now, because they should have gone (to the NCAA Tournament) last year and would have had hosted games, this is something they’re never going to forget.”

RK: I know you follow the sport closely, so do you have any thoughts about Arizona’s region? I know some people (me, included) were saying that it’s good that UConn and Stanford aren’t in their region.

JB: “I’ll just say this: every game is tough. That’s why there’s a difference between fans and people who really know. There’s a lot of good teams in the bracket, and one is (No. 2 seed) Texas A&M, who is really, really good. If [Arizona] is fortunate to get past Stony Brook, they could face Rutgers. All these teams are good. You can’t discount anyone. Stanford’s not in their bracket but the road is not easy.

“The other thing, and this is important but it may seem small, is the ability to make adjustments during the game and that you win a lot of close games. And particularly in the NCAA Tournament, with all the software and watching games and preparing, they know a lot about different opponents, but there’s gonna be a wrinkle in there that maybe you haven’t seen. You have to be able to make adjustments and Adia has really grown and they’ve won some close games this year. So look for that to be an important key to advance.”

RK: Do you have an example of those adjustments you’re talking about?

AB: “One is calling timeouts. She does a really good job with that. ... You get four timeouts and they’re there to be used if you need them. Like you can’t bank them and use them on the next game. So it’s important that you use them. Adia has done a good job using timeouts to make adjustments, to stop a run, or, toward the end of game, advance the ball. They’ve done a really good job running plays. It’s the intangible things but she’s made good adjustments defensively, how they guard people, scouting. They’re going to be very well prepared.”

RK: How much do you miss coaching? And when you’re calling games, what’s your mindset?

JB: “What I miss, I miss the relationship with the players and the coaches on my staff. I mean, I love coaching. I love being with the players. It was a lot of fun. I loved the practices and everything. I love the competition. I really did. So I miss that. However, I get my basketball fix by calling games. Like anyone, it’s a lot easier when you’re sitting there, the pressure is not on me, I’m just saying what’s happening. I don’t really say a lot of like, ‘I think they should be doing this.’ If there’s a timeout and it’s close, I’ll say, ‘well if it was me, this is what I would do.’ But I have a lot of respect for coaches. When I’m calling games, I always defer to them because they’ve watched a whole lot more game film than I have, and they know their players. But I’m very happy in what I’m doing. I love coaching. I am very happy I didn’t coach during COVID. That would have been extraordinarily difficult, so I have a lot of respect for everyone who’s had to deal with this, both players, coaches, staff, training staff. It’s been incredible.”

RK: I know you talk to a lot of different coaches, so what do you think has been the biggest challenge of this season?

JB: “The common denominator in all the coaches I’ve talked to, that they’ve missed, is the ability to just really have team-building things. Whether it’s dinner together at the coach’s house, hanging out. You just don’t do that like you normally would. It’s just not the same. They’re all spaced out. It’s just different. I know for Adia it was really hard after the first game. How they were seated in the locker room, how they were seated during the games, wearing a mask. But they got used to it. All the players, the coaches and staff, they all got used to it. But it’s been an incredible challenge. I mean, imagine not knowing if you were gonna play a game until that morning. You know, you’re prepared and then you find out that morning that someone tested positive. Those are difficult things, so I have a great deal of respect for everyone that’s had to deal with it, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do that. I loved the time I had. I’m very happy in what I’m doing now and I have actually a little bit more time to do some things I wasn’t able to do before.”

RK: How hard was it to see the program struggle for so long after you left? (Bonvicini stepped down after the 2007-08 season.)

JB: “I mean, it was hard because I put so much time into it. No matter how I left, and I had good relationships with the people even when I left, I loved my time at U of A. I mean, it was just hard, without going in detail, when [Polk] passed away. I wanted U of A to be good. No doubt. I always wanted them to go back and be a good program, and it took Adia to do that.”

RK: OK, that’s everything I have for you. Thanks so much for the taking the time.

JB: No problem. Go Cats and Bear Down!