When the dust settled, Arizona women’s basketball didn’t have the top-ranked recruiting class according to ESPN HoopGurlz. Being No. 2 isn’t bad, though.
Head coach Adia Barnes and her staff put the finishing touches on the highest-rated class in program history by signing No. 8 Montaya Dew, No. 14 Breya Cunningham, and No. 21 Jada Williams on Wednesday. It’s the second straight top 10 class for the Wildcats, who had the No. 8 class last season even before signing No. 21 Paris Clark in April.
Dew, a 6-foot-2 forward, becomes the highest-ranked recruit who has ever come to Arizona. She barely edges out current freshman Maya Nnaji, who was ranked ninth last season. Even better for the Wildcats, their newest Swiss Army knife-type player will be a Wildcat in a few weeks after graduating early from Centennial High in Las Vegas. She will take a greyshirt at Arizona for one semester similar to how former Wildcat Tara Manumaleuga did in the spring of 2019.
“Extremely skilled,” Barnes said. “At her height, she can play the four, the three, the two, the one. I’ve seen her play every position, and she can shoot the three. I know you guys probably saw on social media, but she’s working on her dunking skills. So she wants to dunk by the time she gets here,. and I think she can. She’s just springy...She’s a facilitator. So she...will probably play majority [at the] four in the beginning just as she learns our system and I think she can play a lot of positions, but a really good passer and I think probably similar to Helena [Pueyo], how she sees the floor and plays with people, and then just a freak athlete.”
Centennial is the same program that produced Sam Thomas, the former Arizona standout and current member of the Phoenix Mercury. Barnes is happy to have another player developed by legendary Centennial coach Karen Weitz, who began coaching both the girls' and boys' teams at the Vegas powerhouse after years of coaching the girls.
“She’s a phenomenal coach,” Barnes said. “I know when I’m recruiting a player from her program, I know they’re gonna be a good player in a lot of different ways, and she is someone who demands a certain standard, which I love. She coaches them hard. She gets the best out of them. She holds them accountable, but she’s a lot more strict than me. I mean, I love it. I have a tremendous respect and I love her. She coaches them, holds them accountable for a lot of little things. So you see them in high school getting pulled out really fast, and I think it brings their game up. And if you can be coached that hard and you’re still successful, you can be coached in college...[T]here’s some high school coaches that don’t do a lot of coaching. It’s just more of a friendship. And then we get them and they come here, and it’s like they’ve never been coached and they have a very tough time.”
Arizona’s second-highest-rated recruit is 6-foot-4 Breya Cunningham, the 14th-ranked player out of La Jolla Country Day School. Cunningham isn’t a “stretch 4” or a “positionless” player. She knows what she wants to be. A post.
“If you look at Breya, she’s different than who we have, totally,” Barnes said. “Breya is one of the few posts that wants to be a post. Everybody else in this generation is really different. Like, if you’re a five you want to be a two. If you’re a three you want to be a four... Our generation was like, I will play wherever you want me to do—probably except for point guards, who can dribble— but I will play wherever you want me to just so I can play. Nowadays it’s really different because you’re thinking about pro and there’s just a lot more factors...but Breya is one of the few in the country that is a five that wants to be a five. She can step out and she shoots shots, but she’s not trying to go dribble between her legs and take a three. She’s like, I’m not trying to do that...I love that about her because she wants to be who she is...And she’s a beast inside. She’s a beast, so she’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for sure.”
Early in the process, some people thought Cunningham might end up at Oregon because of her friendship with former La Jolla point guard Te-Hina Paopao. Barnes had some concerns, too, but they were about another friend and teammate who was once committed to UCLA. That player—No. 21 recruit Jada Williams—eventually decided that going to school and playing basketball in Tucson was preferable, too.
“I think [the tie between Cunningham and Williams is] really important because obviously, Jada was going to another school,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t recruiting her, but I would see her all the time. I knew her from years ago a little bit, but Breya and her are just really, really close and that had me worried because when Breya went on some visits I was kind of like ‘okay, she might go the other school because of [Williams].’ But they have great chemistry. They are good for each other. They’re both really different personalities, and they bring out the best in each other and trust each other.”
For Cunningham, it might be her ties to Tucson and Arizona that helped get her back to the city where she was born. Her mother attended Arizona prior to going into the military.
Breya Cunningham actually is coming home. Her mom Christania Houghton attended the UA and left Tucson upon graduation to attend Naval officer training school. This happened shortly after Breya was born in Tucson. https://t.co/IW4zarAB2Z— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) June 27, 2022
“She’s always had Arizona stuff all over her room because of her mom, and her mom and everyone would be like, ‘Go to Arizona!’ to keep it here,” Barnes said. “We always say keep it in the family.”
Getting in with recruits in the top 20 helps in many ways. It obviously helps on the court when they get to school and start playing, but it also helps on the recruiting trail. Even players who go to different schools in different parts of the country may be close because of time spent with USA Basketball, at elite camps, and at all-star games like the McDonald’s All-American Game.
“They all have friendships, they all know each other,” Barnes said. “I think what great players do is they attract other good players. So I think just their chemistry, I think game-wise, they complement each other. Paris and Jada were really good friends, so that’s just a plus. And I didn’t actually know that till later. I had no idea.”
Those friendships may not have been the deciding reason Williams opted to come to Arizona, but they will help once she gets to Tucson.
Because of Williams’ reputation as one of the vanguard of the NIL era, some might wonder whether she will be as focused on basketball and her relationships with her teammates. By all accounts, though, her ability to forge bonds with others and connect with her teammates is one of her strengths.
In late October, ESPN wrote about the 5-foot-6 lead guard, “She is a true PG that sets the table for her teammates, leads by playing example and verbal encouragement, and keeps defenses honest with her ability to knock down shots.”
Barnes backed that up on Wednesday when she spoke about Williams.
“She was with USA basketball and I was going back looking at videos,” Barnes said. “We watched in some of them live but some of the time differences couldn’t see all the games. She’s hurt and wasn’t playing. She’s like the first person off the bench. She’s going giving high fives. The first person meeting at halfcourt, walking back, super engaged on the bench. And as a coach, you look for those things and most people don’t have that. And she has that. So she’s like a natural-born leader.”
In addition to the three that signed their letters on Wednesday, Arizona is still officially listed by ESPN as being in the mix for No. 1 overall player Judea Watkins and No. 16 Cassandra Prosper. Prosper took an official visit to Tucson.
Louisiana State overtook Arizona with the No. 1 class in the final week before signing day by getting two top 10 players.