The offseason has flown by. Representatives of Arizona women’s basketball will head to Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday, Oct. 25. Two days later, the Wildcats will take the court for their first exhibition game against Division II West Texas A&M.
After a disappointing end to last season, the No. 19 Wildcats are looking to bounce back with a largely new roster. They return just five players—including three starters—from a group that went 21-8 last year, but head coach Adia Barnes likes what she sees.
“Now on paper...you’re like, ‘Oh, we should be good,’” Barnes said. “Well, you got to put the puzzle together, and that’s the challenging part as a coach. And I think that’s the exciting part.”
The Wildcats won’t lack experience. They feature three fifth-year players, led by Cate Reese in her final season at Arizona. Shaina Pellington is the second-most experience fifth-year player in the Arizona system, going into her fourth season as a Wildcat.
The most intriguing of the fifth-year players might be Jade Loville, though. Loville is at her second stop in the state of Arizona, having transferred to Tucson after one year with Arizona State. The second-leading scorer in the Pac-12 last season got my vote for 2021-22 Pac-12 Player of the Year. She brings a lot of offense and athleticism to the Wildcats. She showed that on an offensively-challenged team last year when she was able to score in bunches despite being the primary Sun Devil opponents needed to worry about.
Loville is not the only new face on the roster, though. Where will everyone fit this season? Here are some guesses to get the arguments underway.
Starter: Shaina Pellington
Primary reserves: Helena Pueyo, Paris Clark, Kailyn Gilbert
After starting at the point last season, it’s difficult to see Pellington being moved to the bench this year. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes values her athleticism and defense. She also believes her fifth-year leader will be a bigger offensive threat this season.
“She’s improved a lot,” Barnes said. “Shaina has worked on her mid-range game. She’s worked on her shot...She wants to play pro, so she’s putting in the work and you guys will see a much-improved shot. I mean, just the form, technique, the arc on the shot, everything.”
There’s every reason to believe that Pueyo will continue to see a lot of minutes at the one, as well. Barnes said she will play at “the one, two, three, four, five, like she always is” because of her versatility and size.
Whether it’s in Pueyo’s best interests to be a point guard is another question. She has shot less and less each season she’s been at Arizona despite being initially brought to Tucson as a shooter. Her turn with the Spanish 3x3 national team with whom she won a gold medal this summer has shown that the shooting is still there, though. Would she be better suited at the two or three?
Gilbert and Clark will both see time at the one, as well. Barnes has said that she’s committed to this group of highly-touted freshmen. She knows that players don’t sit around and develop anymore. If they’re not seeing the floor, they leave. She doesn’t want that to happen to the quartet she brought in this year.
Starter: Paris Clark
Primary reserves: Jade Loville, Lauren Fields, Helena Pueyo, Madison Conner, Kailyn Gilbert
Who starts here is a toss-up between Clark, Loville, and Fields depending on whether Barnes goes big or small. If she goes with a bigger lineup, it may be Loville who gets the nod here and Loville will undoubtedly see some time at the two whether she starts there or not. She has the size and skills that would make her effective at either the two or the three.
If Barnes goes smaller, Clark would be a nice tandem with Pellington because she’s a good scorer, facilitator, and defender. The question is whether Clark will be ready for the speed of the college game. Barnes has certainly started freshmen before, and Clark seems the most likely of this group of freshmen to get that nod because of the roster construction.
The other option as a starter here is Fields, especially if Barnes doesn’t think Clark is quite ready to start as a freshman. Fields was a prolific scorer for Oklahoma State. The concern is that it came as a volume shooter who hit a low percentage of her outside shots.
Fields is similar to Pellington in that she has been most effective inside the arc rather than shooting from outside. If Pellington isn’t able to show her improved shot in games, the tandem of Pellington and Fields could present a lot of the same offensive issues Arizona had with the pairing of Pellington and Bendu Yeaney last season. Opposing defenses could simply pack the paint and make things sticky inside.
Fields is also similar to Pellington in that she is a strong defender. She accounted for 2.5 steals per game last season, placing her in the 99th percentile in Division I basketball. She also grabbed 4.1 rebounds while dishing out 1.9 assists.
Fields brings a lot to the table for the Wildcats, but it will be necessary to see which groupings work best together. While she will play the two, it might be in Arizona’s best interests if she plays with a PG who has more of an outside game.
Starter: Jade Loville
Primary reserves: Helena Pueyo, Lemyah Hylton, Esmery Martinez
This is another position that might be decided on whether Barnes wants to go with a bigger lineup or a smaller one. Loville is listed as a guard/forward on the roster, at least giving an indication that she may play the three. She is the only player on the roster with that notation.
Loville has the offensive game to make this a more dangerous position for Arizona than it has been in years. While Sam Thomas was outstanding as a defender and facilitator, she rarely took it upon herself to be a scorer. Loville would be a big change if she starts here. She hit 41.7 percent of her shots last season and was actually better from 3-point distance (43.3 percent) than 2-point distance (41.2 percent).
With the graduation of Thomas, Arizona really needs a strong defender to step in here, too. Loville has played for defensive-oriented coaches, most recently for Charli Turner-Thorne last season. She notes that there are differences between Turner-Thorne and Barnes but she has the athleticism to play both styles of defense. It would be reasonable to sxpect her steal numbers to improve in Barnes’ defensive system.
“We’re playing up in the lanes so we’re not stepped down,” Loville said. “Charli was more stepped down. Definitely big on help side and everything, but now we’re more aggressive in the lanes to try to get more steals, more pressure on the ball. I think that’s what Charli wanted, but we weren’t able to execute as much. But I think definitely this year we’re going to be all up in your face, all up in the passing lanes pressing.”
Pueyo has an inch or two on Loville and she has a lot of the same attributes that Thomas brought to the position. She’s a long defender who can tip and deflect the ball as well as pile up the steals. She has the ability to bring offense to this position, as well, if she becomes the shooter she was once expected to be.
Although Hylton is listed as a guard on the Arizona roster, Barnes indicated at local media day that her freshman would be a good fit at the three.
In a bigger lineup, Martinez, who Barnes called a stretch four, could pick up some minutes here, as well. Barnes said that her transfer from West Virginia has the handles to be able to get around people, which might suit her in this position. While she didn’t take a lot of 3-point shots at WVU, she hit 40 percent of those shots last year. It would also put another rebounder on the floor.
Starter: Cate Reese
Primary reserves: Esmery Martinez, Maya Nnaji
In all likelihood, Barnes will go with a slightly larger lineup that has Reese at the four and Lauren Ware at the five, just as she did last season. There will certainly be times when Reese will slide over to the five, though. She has done so throughout her career and is more than capable of doing that. In those situations, it will likely be to make room for Martinez at the four.
Nnaji is the highest-rated recruit in the freshman class, but she likely won’t be the first one to get a start simply because of the experience Arizona has inside. It would be uncharacteristic for Barnes to remove a long-time starter for a freshman. A freshman may start over a transfer, but it has been rare to see one start over an established upperclassman. Reese might be the last one to get that nod.
Martinez will see a lot of time at the four and she obviously has the talent to start at the position for many major-conference teams. She won’t be there for the opening whistle at Arizona, though.
Starter: Lauren Ware
Primary reserves: Cate Reese, Maya Nnaji
Ware will retain her starting spot but in smaller lineups, Reese will see time at the five. The important thing for Barnes will be finding plenty of time for Nnaji to develop, both for Arizona’s future and Nnaji’s satisfaction.
“When I look at the future, [the freshmen] are the future,” Barnes said. “I think the challenge for coaches nowadays at top programs is you have this good group of freshmen, let’s say three or four freshmen, in our case four, and then you have really good transfers and upperclassmen. So you want to play your freshmen because otherwise you’re gonna lose all of them...So I think it’s the balance of developing them, giving them experience and playing time, and then integrating them and then you really can win with them. When they’re juniors, seniors, you can win championships.”
Nnaji has long-term plans both academically and athletically that align with Arizona and her family has ties to the University. She also appears to have a very good head on her shoulders that will keep her from being one who wanders the first time she doesn’t get the playing time she wants. Still, it’s a day and age when young players want to play and fans want to see them play. Nnaji might be the player Arizona fans desire to see more than any freshman in program history.