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An early look at Arizona women’s basketball’s depth chart

Stanford v Arizona Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After an offseason filled with the kind of changes that have become common in college basketball—transfers, transfers and more transfers—most of the Wildcats are back on campus.

Arizona added some very accomplished transfers and quality freshmen on the heels of its Final Four run, but Adia Barnes was not able to add an elite point guard from the transfer portal. That makes this offseason more important than ever as she and her staff figure out how the pieces fit together without the luxury of Aari McDonald to fall back on.

Arizona is extremely deep at the two, three and four. Most of the scoring should come from those three positions. Some of those fours also help fill out the five position, which would otherwise be lacking in depth. This abundance of talent at three positions and questions at the one and five make lineup projection difficult. Here’s the first attempt to project a possible rotation before seeing this new group actually play together.

Starting point guard: Shaina Pellington

Senior Pellington is off playing for Canada in the Olympics. She played well for her national team during the recent AmeriCup in Puerto Rico, coming in as their second-leading scorer. While it’s unlikely that she will do that at the Olympics since Canada’s WNBA players are now with the team, she was able to prove to herself that she can still do it. Since confidence was an issue for her last year, that might be the most important thing that came out of her time with her national team as far as Arizona is concerned.

Pellington had her best game as a Wildcat in last season’s national title game. She says she knows she has big shoes to fill, but she is confident that she can fill them. She will get every chance to prove that. She has to be considered the favorite to serve as Arizona’s lead guard next year, but Arizona will need others to step up, too.

Backup options:

  • Barnes believes that Oregon transfer Taylor Chavez could handle the point for Arizona and she has good reason. While Chavez was never a major contributor at that position for the Ducks, she was the 16th-ranked point guard and No. 61 overall player in the 2018 class. Dan Olson wrote on her ESPN recruiting profile that she “handles, pushes tempo and distributes in transition game.” Arizona will give her the opportunity to use those skills again.
  • Freshman Anna Gret Asi is also a possibility, although Barnes has noted that the Estonian does not really want to play the one at the college level. Asi played well for her country as they attempted to qualify for the Olympic 3x3 competition, but it didn’t give much of a clue as to her ability to run a high-major NCAA offense. In Division B 5x5, she averaged 2.3 assists per game at the 2018 U16 Women’s European Championship and 2.8 APG at the 2019 U18 Women’s European Championship.
  • Sophomore Derin Erdogan is playing for her native Turkey at the U20 European Challengers currently being held in Konya, Turkey. She is fourth on her team with 8.3 points in 27.6 minutes per game. More concerning, she is only second on the team with 2.8 assists per game. While Turkey is playing solid competition, hosting third-ranked France and sixth-ranked Russia, the fact that small forward Goksen Fitik has 5.0 assists per game for the team is a concern if Erdogan hopes to be a major player for Arizona at the one. At 5-foot-6, she is the shortest of the Wildcats’ options at the position but doesn’t have the kind of quickness that McDonald used to make up for lack of height. She will need to figure out how to carve a role for herself.
  • Arizona also has several wings who are proficient running the offense, at least for short periods of time. The Wildcats may use options like Sam Thomas and Helena Pueyo from time to time, but it’s unlikely that either will be the starting point guard. It’s worth noting that Thomas did run the point very effectively for Arizona late in the 2019-20 season when McDonald was out injured.

Starting shooting guard: Taylor Chavez

If Pellington starts at the point as expected, Bendu Yeaney, who was last year’s starting two-guard, is unlikely to start alongside her. Barnes said last season that she had learned that some players simply could not play together. While the coach didn’t name names, Pellington and Yeaney are a pair that probably shouldn’t be on the floor together.

Both players are strong on the defensive end, but neither is a big threat from outside. Neither did much scoring at all most of last season, although Pellington has shown that she can score both at Oklahoma and at the international level. She was definitely the more productive on the offensive end last year, averaging 5.8 PPG to Yeaney’s 4.1 PPG.

That leaves Chavez as the best option to start alongside Pellington. Chavez averaged 23.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 5.3 steals as a high school senior. She didn’t have that kind of success at Oregon, where she was never able to reach 20 minutes per game.

Her first two seasons, Chavez played behind Sabrina Ionescu. In her first junior season, she spent a considerable amount of time away from the team due to her grandmother’s illness. She now has the opportunity to make her second junior season a coming out party, and Arizona needs her to make the most of it.

Backup options:

  • Yeaney will likely be the first or second guard off the bench. When Pellington goes out, Chavez can slide over to the one and play alongside last year’s starting two guard. Yeaney will need to show that she’s a lockdown defender and improve her scoring, because this is one of the positions with plenty of options for Barnes.
  • When Chavez goes to the bench, Pueyo can take her spot. At six feet tall, the junior from Spain has the length to bother offensive players. Her deflections don’t show in the box score, but they are crucial to Arizona’s defense. She also has the advantage of being an effective scorer—as long as she remembers that she’s an effective scorer. Last season, she inexplicably stopped shooting. After attempting six shots per contest in 21.6 MPG as a freshman, Pueyo attempted just 3.7 in 21.5 MPG as a sophomore. Early video from the U20 European Challengers indicate that she’s shooting confidently with her national team this summer. Hopefully, she will bring that back to Tucson.
  • Freshman Madi Conner didn’t play much after joining the Wildcats in January. With the depth Arizona has at her position, she may not play much this year, either. She and fellow freshman Asi will have a year to get more comfortable with the system and prove they can be strong defenders as well as offensive threats.
  • Asi has shown a great deal of offensive promise on the international level and this is the position she wants to play. The question is whether she will be as effective when the level of competition increases; most of her international experience has come against Division B opponents.

Starting small forward/wing: Sam Thomas

Thomas has started every game since she stepped on the Arizona campus in 2017-18. There’s no reason to suspect that will change in her second senior season.

Thomas has been known as a stalwart defender who performs the function of a Swiss Army knife for the Wildcats. Her freshman year, she was the second-leading scorer among Pac-12 freshmen and led the league’s first-timers in rebounds, steals, blocks and minutes per game. Her 10.2 PPG were second on the team that year, but it was the only season she averaged double figures for the Wildcats.

With McDonald on the court the last three years, Thomas has not taken on that kind of scoring load. Arizona will need to be a more offensively balanced team this year, and she is a key to making that happen. Thomas will have to get out of her comfort zone.

Backup options:

  • Vanderbilt transfer Koi Love was one of Barnes’ big gets on the transfer market. The Wildcats have not been a good rebounding team during the Barnes era, and Love is capable of putting an end to that. The former Commodore averaged nearly a double-double last year with 20.8 PPG and 9.5 RPG, albeit in just eight games. As a freshman, she scored in double figures 20 times and led the team in scoring for the season. She also led them in rebounding seven times on the way to being named SEC All-Freshman. Love can also play the four, providing plenty of versatility.
  • Versatility is also the calling card of Spanish forward Gisela Sanchez. At 6-foot-3 she provides a lot of length for a small forward. While bigger post players would likely overpower her slight frame, highlights show a player who can do a little bit of everything. On defense, she is an effective shot blocker. On the boards, she is focused on boxing out. She runs the floor well. She averaged 10.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.8 steals in 26.0 minutes for Segle XXI (the club that produced Pueyo) this season.
  • Pueyo is also capable of filling this position if foul trouble or injuries arise, so Arizona may move the pieces around depending on need.

Starting power forward: Cate Reese

Like Thomas, Reese has started every game since she stepped foot on campus. She’s also been Arizona’s second-leading scorer all three years of her career. Reese has primarily played the five, but Arizona should have enough size this season for her to play her more natural position at the four.

Last year, Reese had her struggles with foul trouble. Her 71 personal fouls were the most on the team, and the 2.6 personal fouls per game that she was whistled for tied for eighth in the conference.

While Reese didn’t foul out very often, the whistles still affected her game. When she ran into early foul issues, she had difficulty finding her way back. With Arizona having more size inside, she may be able to avoid that this season.

Backup options:

  • As noted earlier, Koi Love has the versatility to play both forward positions.
  • Alabama grad transfer Ariyah Copeland will likely start alongside Reese. That doesn’t mean she will always play the five, though. Expect some mixing and matching at the four and five depending on the situation.
  • Freshman Aaronette Vonleh has a ways to go before she will be able to compete against the best of the Pac-12. Although she was just named the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year, it would be a surprise if she played a lot this year. She will need to work on both defense and conditioning to be a contributor once league play rolls around, but she should see some time at both the four and the five in the non-conference portion of the season.

Starting post: Ariyah Copeland

Copeland was another big get for Barnes. The grad transfer came over from the SEC where she had nine double-doubles in 27 games last season. Her 14.4 PPG ranked her third on the Alabama roster while her 8.6 RPG were second. She also led the Crimson Tide with 25 blocks. That would have been third on Arizona behind Thomas (33) and Lauren Ware (30).

Ware could well pass Copeland to grab this starting spot, but it is unusual for a grad transfer to be brought in as a reserve. In her five years at Arizona, Barnes has brought in three grad transfers. Each one started every game in her only year as a Wildcat.

Backup options:

  • If she doesn’t start, Ware will be the first big off the bench for Arizona. Last year, she was second on the team with 30 blocks despite averaging just 16.1 MPG. Her 3.8 RPG were fourth on the team. The three players with more boards played at least eight more minutes per game than she did. Her decision to give up volleyball shows that she is committed. Barnes will likely reward Ware for that commitment as much as possible.
  • Semaj Smith played very little her junior season. With both Copeland and Ware ahead of her, she will have to fight to find minutes this season, too. Vonleh will also try to take some of that playing time.
  • Vonleh will likely see some minutes at both the four and the five her freshman year. She just won’t see many of them.