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‘We want to be back here’: Arizona sets new standard after reaching title game

Arizona v Stanford Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO — Adia Barnes has plans for Arizona women’s basketball’s future. Big plans.

The kind of plans that would make you pause, shake your head in denial, and mutter, ‘Are you crazy?’ if she hadn’t just coached the Wildcats to one of the most impressive runs in recent NCAA Tournament history.

“I’m not satisfied with just being here, being in the tournament,” Barnes said Sunday, moments after Arizona fell 54-53 to Stanford in the national title game. “I want to build a program where you’re surprised when they don’t win.”

Barnes doesn’t want to become a one-and-doner, the coach who takes a program to the Final Four once and never gets there again.

No, she wants to be like the coaches who surrounded her at the Final Four this past weekend. Geno. Dawn. Tara.

“I want to be back here,” Barnes said. “I think in the future, Arizona will be back.”

She knows she can do it.

After all, Barnes is young. Young enough in coaching years to carry ambitions that would make a NASA engineer chuckle.

Barnes is driven. Driven enough to give birth to a child, take one week off and then get right back to the grind, all in a Covid year.

Barnes is intelligent. Intelligent enough to outsmart her peers on a near-nightly basis – with the help of a staff that includes her husband, Salvo Coppa.

One thing Barnes is not? Naïve.

She recognizes that it will take a galactic effort to recruit near the level of UConn, South Carolina and Stanford. She knows that even with a stacked roster, it requires some luck to get as far as the Wildcats did this year.

And if Barnes needed any extra reminder of the difficulty in store of building and maintaining an elite program, she saw it standing 50 feet away from her Sunday in the shape of Stanford’s VanDerveer, the winningest coach in women’s hoops history.

By defeating Arizona, VanDerveer won her third title and first in 29 years, the longest drought between championships of any coach in NCAA history.

“Tara has won, like, 1,100 more games than me, so I have a long way to go,” Barnes said. “She’s been here many times.”

Hard as it may be to believe now, VanDerveer was once upon a time in a situation at Stanford not unlike what Barnes faced in her first years at Arizona.

VanDerveer had led Ohio State to the Elite in 1985 when she uprooted her life to move to Palo Alto and become the Cardinal’s next head coach. Stanford was coming off a 5-23 and 9-19 seasons. A few hundred fans would attend games.

Recruiting was a challenge because of the school’s academic reputation.

“My dad told me living Ohio State, don’t take the Stanford job, it’s a graveyard job,” VanDerVeer said Sunday. “I said, Dad, we just need four and five (recruits) a year.”

In VanDerveer’s fifth season Stanford won the national title. In year six, the Cardinal were back in the Final Four. Year seven produced another championship.

Then came three decades of winning, winning and more winning, but never a national championship trophy to show for. Until Sunday night.

Barnes, who just completed her fifth season at Arizona, won’t be burdened with VanDerveer-type expectations and for good reason. The proliferation of women’s basketball both domestically and abroad has led to greater parity and competition across the sport, making it that much harder to make the NCAA Tournament and advance.

All the while, the crème de la crème of UConn, Stanford, South Carolina and Baylor continue to bring in the very best players.

Arizona nearly bypassed all those barriers this year because of a once-in-a-generation talent in Aari McDonald. McDonald is 5-foot-6 but she leaves a meteor-size void in the Wildcats locker room.

Senior starters Sam Thomas and Trinity Baptiste also may have played their final games in an Arizona uniform, which puts the team on track for a rebuilding season.

The coaching staff will likely turn to the transfer portal this spring to round out their roster for next fall. Recruiting transfers and high schoolers alike just got a whole lot easier as Barnes has become a household name.

It may be several years and an entirely new roster before Arizona women’s basketball can realistically chase another Final Four. If Barnes has it her way, it’ll be much sooner.

This much is certain after Arizona’s title loss to Stanford: the expectations for the program have been reset, and they’re not fading away anytime soon.

“This is going to be where you want to go,” Barnes said Sunday. “This is going to be what we’re trying to do. Before the goal was going to the Tournament, or winning a Pac-12 championship. Now we played for the national championship, which not a lot of teams can say they’ve done that.

“We had an opportunity to do that. That’s all I could ask for. So the bar is high. We want to come back here.”