After clinching the program’s first Final Four trip, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes pointed at the elephant in the room. The Wildcats will be headed into a field of teams stacked with McDonald’s All-Americans and they must find a way to counter that.
“We pride ourselves on development,” she said. “We pride ourselves on a lot of little things that I think a lot of programs don’t do and it’s just our philosophy. And it had to be our philosophy because we weren’t getting McDonald’s All-Americans. Some programs have multiple All-Americans. We don’t. We have one, which is Cate Reese. So we have to get our players better.”
Arizona’s best player was not only not a McDonald’s All-American, she wasn’t even ranked in the top 50 recruits in her class. Aari McDonald was rated a four-star recruit and ranked No. 55 in the class of 2016.
It’s not that her skills were not clear. Dan Olson wrote of her at ESPN, “Electrifying lead-guard with a scorer’s mentality; explosive off the dribble, attacks rim with flair, finishes vs. contact; confident floor game handles in transition, distributes; disruptive defender; mid-range game creator yields results.”
Those are all the things that still make her nearly unstoppable. The things that made her Pac-12 Player of the Year and a two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Yet, a whole host of players who would play in the Pac-12 were ranked above her. Looking back on their careers, some were understandable, like Sabrina Ionescu and Ruthy Hebard of Oregon. Others, like ASU’s Jamie Ruden, Oregon’s Erin Boley and Washington State’s Chanelle Molina, were less understandable and show the occasionally hit-or-miss nature of projecting high school players’ comparative success into college.
The McDonald’s All-America team that year featured a trio of future Stanford players—DiJonai Carrington, Nadia Fingall and Anna Wilson. Natalie Chou, who would end up at UCLA after a stay at Baylor, was on that team. The much-traveled Destiny Slocum was, too. And, of course, Ionescu.
All that All-American talent in the 2016 class and only the Oregon and Stanford commits would take their teams to the Final Four out of the Pac-12.
But there is no doubt that the rankings at least point to top-tier talent. There is a reason they’re used. The programs that can fill their rosters with the type of player who headlines those lists are bound to have more success.
As McDonald joins the likes of Ionescu and Wilson as a Final Four participant from the class of 2016, her team will be facing squads loaded with the kind of players that were once declared the best in girls high school basketball.
The team the Wildcats face on Friday isn’t just chock full of McDonald’s All-Americans, but also sports multiple high school national players of the year. It is true that Connecticut has no seniors and only three juniors, but they have top-tier talent in each of the classes they do have.
Everything starts with the No. 1 recruit from 2020 and newly-minted AP national player of the year, Paige Bueckers. She and fellow freshman Mir McLean made the 2020 McDonald’s All-America team.
The sophomore class is not bereft of decorated talent, either. There are only two sophomores on the team, but Aubrey Griffin was honored as a 2019 McDonald’s All-American.
The junior class is headlined by 2018’s No. 1 recruit, Christyn Williams. Like Bueckers, Williams not only was an All-American in high school, but she took home multiple national player of the year awards in her final year at the prep level. Olivia Nelson-Ododa joined Williams on that 2018 McDonald’s All-America team.
Redshirt junior Evina Westbrook landed at Tennessee after being hailed as the national player of the year and a McDonald’s All-American in 2017. After her sophomore season in college, she was on her way to Storrs, Conn. to join an already-loaded team.
The other side of the bracket is no easier. South Carolina currently sports six former McDonald’s All-Americans, one of whom was also a player of the year in high school. Next season they will add four more. Head coach Dawn Staley has taken the team to two Final Fours—including the 2017 national title—in the past six years.
Then there are those Stanford Cardinal, a team the Wildcats know too well. Tara VanDerveer and her staff brought in last year’s No. 1 recruit, Haley Jones. The Cardinal officially have eight former McDonald’s All-Americans on their roster, although one was lost to season-ending surgery and one opted out due to COVID-19. Six will suit up for Stanford on Friday.
Those are the types of teams who are supposed to make the Final Four, especially in women’s basketball where so much the top high school talent commits to a few schools. A program like Arizona—that makes “finalist” lists of one big recruit after another but has only landed a few—is crashing an exclusive party.
The Wildcats are willing to do anything to get to stay until the end of that party, whether it means seeing a dear friend and former teammate like Connecticut graduate assistant Tee Tee Starks as “the enemy for 40 minutes” or something even more drastic.
“Even if my mom was in the way, I got to knock her over and try to get to that,” McDonald joked.
Arizona may not have that roster littered with players who were picked to be the best before they left high school, but that drive by McDonald is indicative of other things that Barnes values in her entire team. Confidence. Determination.
“It says a lot about our program because we don’t have some of the talent that other teams have,” Barnes said. “So I think that it’s the kids that have just found a way to get things done. And it’s exciting. It’s exciting for me to be a part of it. Coaching is fun. Coaching this team is fun. I love this team. We’ve been through ups and downs this year, and I think it’s normal, but it’s all been worth it. I wouldn’t change anything. So I think everybody’s excited, hungry. They don’t have a scared look in their eyes. They don’t care who we’re playing. They just want to go out and win, and I love that. I love that when I look into their eyes it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re ready.’”