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What we learned from Arizona women’s basketball’s nonconference play

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 08 Women’s Kansas at Arizona

Arizona women’s basketball wrapped up its nonconference schedule with a win at UT Arlington. The Wildcats ended the pre-Pac-12 season with a 10-1 record. What did we learn from their play?

The Wildcats have a balanced offense

Offense has been a struggle in past years, but Arizona finally has the personnel to put points on the board. While the main caveat to all of these stats is that the Wildcats have only played two ranked teams so far, they still paint a bright picture for the future.

How the offensive numbers end up after Pac-12 play is open to question, but the Wildcats are currently averaging 82.6 points per game. For the past 13 years*, they have not averaged more than 70 PPG since they ended with 73.7 PPG in 2010-11.

Under head coach Adia Barnes, the best year was 2019-20 when the Wildcats ended with 69.1 PPG. They have only scored 70 points or more in 78 of their 195 games since Barnes took over. That’s just 40 percent of their contests. Only 27 of those games occurred during conference play and just 31 came against major-conference opponents.

On a per-game basis, the team’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is impressive this season. Arizona has an offensive rating over 100 in nine of its 11 games, including its outing against Baylor. The only games when the Wildcats fell below 100 were against Kansas (75.8) and UT Arlington (98.7).

Bringing in more offensive weapons has helped the Wildcats score more than in past years. Arizona has four players averaging double figures, but no one is responsible for carrying an oversized load of the scoring. The highest-scoring player on the team is Shaina Pellington at 13.7 PPG. She is quickly followed by Jade Loville (12.8), Cate Reese (12.0), and Esmery Martinez (11.9).

The Wildcats are efficient scorers, as well. Of the four highest-scoring players, Loville has the lowest field goal percentage at 44.5 percent, but she is the only one taking most of her shots from the perimeter. She also has the highest three-point percentage on the team outside Maya Nnaji, who has only taken one shot from beyond the arc.

Loville is hitting a whopping 51 percent of her three-point shots. Considering that prior to last season at Arizona State, Loville had never hit more than 24.4 percent of her three-pointers and was in the teens two of her three seasons at Boise State, it’s a huge accomplishment.

Rebounding is much improved

Last season, Reese was Arizona’s best rebounder with 6.0 rebounds per game. No one else had more than the 4.2 RPG that Lauren Ware grabbed. Over the course of the season, the Wildcats grabbed 36.5 RPG. While it was the best in Barnes’ tenure, it was still well below what Arizona is doing this season.

The addition of Esmery Martinez cannot be discounted. She leads the team with 9.8 RPG, including 3.8 on the offensive end of the court. She’s not the only one having an impact, though.

Reese has made a jump in her rebounding. The fifth-year forward is currently averaging 7.3 RPG. She grabs 2.8 offensive boards per contest. In her last three games, she has had two double-doubles and corralled eight in just 18 minutes in the final game of the nonconference season.

If Reese can maintain this pace, it would be her second-best season on the boards in her five years as a Wildcat. Her record was 7.5 RPG her sophomore season.

Arizona is also getting good production from freshman post Nnaji. Despite playing just 14.5 minutes per game in 10 games, she is controlling 4.5 RPG. That would have put her second on last year’s team, outpacing the 4.2 Lauren Ware grabbed in 21.8 MPG.

Perhaps the most important part of the rebounding improvement is how much of it is occurring on the offensive end of the court. The Wildcats are currently getting 14.0 offensive rebounds per game, an improvement of 3.6 per game last year if they can maintain that pace for the rest of the season.

It takes going back to the 2012-13 season when Arizona averaged 14.1 per game to exceed what the team is currently doing. They have averaged double-digit offensive rebounds nine times since 2009-10, but only two of those have come since Barnes took over.

The ‘Cats have an offensive rebounding rate of 37.4 percent this season. That would also be the best going back to 2009-10. They have improved that rate every year under Barnes, but the jump is currently the largest from one year to the next since she took over.

Freshmen are making an impact

Arizona brought in four freshmen this season all of whom were ranked in ESPN’s top 100. Of the three who were eligible for the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic, two of them were on those teams. The one who was spurned is having the biggest impact, though.

Barnes said that she thought Kailyn Gilbert was good enough to be on those teams and would likely come in with a chip on her shoulder because she was left off. It appears both things are true.

Gilbert has matched the 14.5 MPG played by fellow freshman Nnaji. She’s the leading scorer among the freshmen at 7.8 PPG, which places her fifth on the team.

Gilbert has also become much more team oriented as far as sharing the ball. When she first got on campus, it was her tendency to shoot the ball almost every time she touched it. Now, she’s finding teammates.

Gilbert led the Wildcats in their final game before the Christmas break with four assists in 18 minutes of play. Over the course of the season, she averages 1.6 APG in 14.5 MPG.

Nnaji has had an impact on the boards and is tied with Lauren Fields for sixth on the team with 6.7 PPG. She’s getting her 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds in just 14.5 minutes, making good use of her time on the court.

Paris Clark has been sidelined for much of the season and preseason with injuries. She dealt with minor issues that often kept her out of practice in the run-up to the season. Once play started, she suffered a concussion that kept her out of practice and a few games.

The missed time has slowed Clark’s development a bit, but she has shown flashes of being a great defender and all-around team player when she has gotten on the court. Her length and active play aid her both on the boards and on defense.

Clark averages 2.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 10.3 MPG but has only played in eight of Arizona’s 11 games. She’s still trying to find her shot at the college level, connecting on 26.9 percent from the field and 20 percent from the three-point line. She was a prolific scorer in high school, though, so that should come with time.

Lemyah Hylton has played a bit more than Clark, getting 11.1 MPG in nine games. She is matching Clark’s 2.1 PPG while also getting 1.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 0.7 steals per contest. She is shooting 40.9 percent from the field. She is very active on the court but has a very slight build. She should become even more effective by working diligently in the Arizona strength program.

The Wildcats are inconsistent on defense

Arizona hasn’t always been great on defense this season, even against what would be considered lesser opponents. Barnes has noted quite often that they aren’t guarding the ball as well as they should. They have allowed open lanes to the basket against far too many teams in the early going as well as giving up open looks from beyond the arc.

Barnes noted that they needed to be “consistent in what [they] do.” That inconsistency can be seen in the Wildcats’ per-game defensive rating (opponents’ points per 100 possessions). Their defensive ratings have swung from a low of 65.3 against CSUN to a high of 110.0 against Kansas. Arizona has given up at least 80 points per 100 possessions in three of its games this season while keeping it below 70 only twice.

Comparing their per-game defensive rating to last year’s nonconference games shows a decrease in the Wildcats ability to limit their opponents’ scoring. Last season, the highest defensive rating prior to Pac-12 play was 91.9 against DePaul. Texas Southern—a team that had an offensive rating of 66.3 against Arizona this season—was at the bottom of the list with a rating of 48.7.

The Wildcats kept their opponents below 70 five times last season. They gave up at least 80 points per 100 possessions in three games, but their early victory over Louisville was barely over that threshold at 80.8. Overall, it was a tough defensive team even in the early going and against strong competition like the Cardinals and the Blue Demons.

The last full nonconference slate Arizona played prior to that was 2019-20. The team was even better on defense then.

The Wildcats held their opponents to below 70 points per 100 possessions in eight of their 11 pre-conference games in 2019-20. Only Texas and Santa Clara scored more than 80 points per 100 possessions, and the Longhorns narrowly edged over that mark at 80.6. Santa Clara was the most challenging team prior to Pac-12 play at 83.9 points per 100 possessions while UC Riverside was at the low end with 43.5.

While they aren’t where they were during the last two full nonconference seasons, there are signs that the Wildcats are improving. This year’s outing against Baylor on Dec. 18 was Arizona’s most complete game of the season. Against their highest-ranked opponent so far, Arizona held a team that has seven players averaging double figures to just 54 points. That’s a defensive rating of 75.0.

What’s next?

The Wildcats now head into a tough Pac-12 schedule. While the season started with just three teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, there are now five. No. 11 UCLA and No. 12 Utah have demanded attention by playing relatively challenging schedules and doing well against them. No. 16 Oregon is now in front of Arizona for doing the same.

Arizona will need to improve its defense even more to defeat an offensively gifted team like the Utes, let alone to go up against No. 2 Stanford. A look at the upcoming Pac-12 season will be coming after the Christmas holiday.

*Year-to-year stats in this article are taken predominantly from Her Hoop Stats. That database only stretches back to the 2009-10 season. Other stats come from the Arizona Athletics website.