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What we learned from Arizona women’s basketball’s opening week

Esmery Martinez (12) beats the drum after Arizona women’s basketball defeats Northern Arizona on Nov. 10, 2022.
Photo by Rebecca Sasnett / Arizona Athletics

Arizona fans finally got to see the new-look women’s basketball team in games that count. Well, they got to see most of the Wildcats, anyway. What were the main themes from Arizona’s wins over Northern Arizona and Cal State Northridge?

Arizona can score

Head coach Adia Barnes hinted at the fact that the Wildcats didn’t play great offense against Cal State Northridge in their second game of the week. That was actually somewhat of a positive thing.

“We didn’t run good offense, and we scored 87 points,” Barnes said. “So, scoring isn’t the problem.”

The last two years have been outliers in several ways. Last year, Arizona played its second game of the season against Louisville. It has not been typical for the Wildcats to play such a highly-ranked team so early in the season and they didn’t repeat that practice this season.

The year before, the team played a slate that consisted almost entirely of Pac-12 opponents due to the pandemic.

To get a good comparison of schedule strength, it’s best to compare this season to the 2019-20 season when Arizona opened with games against North Dakota and Santa Clara.

That team relied heavily on Aari McDonald for scoring, although Cate Reese also scored in double digits. They were the only two players who went on to average double figures that year, although Sam Thomas was close at 9.5 points per game.

Arizona opened the 2019-20 season scoring 74 points against North Dakota and followed that up with a 65-point effort against Santa Clara. The Fighting Hawks managed 42 points against the Wildcats, while the Broncos put a scare into the home team by scoring 52 in a 13-point loss.

So far this season, the Wildcats have an offensive rating of 129.9, meaning that they score 129.9 points per 100 possessions. Against comparable competition in 2019, they had an offensive rating of 102.6 in their opening two games. It’s an extremely small sample size, but it at least points to the idea that Arizona has the scorers on the team, even when they don’t run good offense.

What is good offense?

Or, more precisely, what was bad about the offense Arizona ran in its first weekend of the regular season and in its two exhibition games? There were a lot of quick shots and, although Shaina Pellington had seven assists in the first game, the Wildcats actually had fewer assists than that team in 2019 did in its opening two games. When considering that those teams with McDonald were considered offensively limited because most of the lineup didn’t score much, it’s more concerning for the current team in the long run.

In the 2019-20 season, Arizona had 18 assists in their first game and 15 in their second game. McDonald had five in each game and at least two other players had three or more in both games.

This season, the Wildcats had 14 assists in their opening game and that dropped to 12 in the second game. Only three players had three or more assists in both games combined. In the opening game, Pellington’s seven combined with Esmery Martinez’s three to make up more than 70 percent of the team’s assists. On Sunday, Helena Pueyo had three to be the only one to hit that mark.

The lack of assists is attributable to two things, one good and one bad. On the positive side, Arizona had far more second-chance points in the opening games this season with 25 in the opening game and 14 in the second game. Against a comparable schedule in 2019, the Wildcats had just 11 and two second-chance points over their first two games. The improved offensive rebounding combined with the players who are able to score quickly on putbacks has created easy offense that doesn’t rely on the assist so much.

On the negative side, Arizona had far too much one-on-one play during its opening week and exhibition games. Barnes noted how early in the shot clock many of their shots were going up and how players were going to have to learn to share the ball more.

“We don’t have selfish players,” Barnes said after the first exhibition game. “We have players that are really used to being...the woman. They’re used to getting all the shots, and it’s different roles...So that’s gonna be the puzzle.”

The concern is still on the defensive end of the floor

Arizona’s defensive rating through the first two games of this season (68.7) is not considerably different from what it was against similar competition in the 2019-20 season (69.8). In essence, that means that opponents are only scoring two fewer points per 100 possessions against the Wildcats this season.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Issues with defensive rotation and a tendency to gamble for steals were still problems in the second game of the year.

There are certainly players who know how to judge when it’s a good time to go for the steal and when she needs to just stay between her player and the basket. On several occasions in the first two regular season games and both exhibition games, Arizona freshmen would lunge for a ball. When she didn’t come up with the ball, her opponent had an open lane to the basket. Both NAU and CSUN had some difficulties converting on those open lanes at times, but better teams will not.

Then, there’s that press. Freshman Kailyn Gilbert knows that she is having problems remembering to get back on defense like she’s supposed to after a score.

“I feel like that’s my biggest struggle right now is to make sure that we pick up full court,” Gilbert said. “So just turning and getting used to the movements. I’m still working on it, but I feel like I’m getting better every day.”

Those with the most experience on the team, like Pueyo, know there are other things to address.

“We have to keep working on defense,” Pueyo said. “Our closeouts. I’ll say our help side. But I feel like we did much better than last game, so I think we just need to keep it up.”

Esmery Martinez is a force of nature

We heard coaches rave about her natural abilities during the offseason. Both Barnes and special assistant to the head coach Bett Shelby said that her abilities are not taught. They are a mixture of lack of fear and an ability to read the ball. Martinez showed that in the exhibition games, then went right on demonstrating it in the first two regular-season games.

“She has quick hops and just a nose for the ball, and that’s instincts,” Barnes said. “That’s not something that we taught or take credit for it. It’s just she’s good at that. Some people are just natural rebounders.”