As of the second week of April, Arizona women’s basketball has lost seven players from the 2021-22 roster. Sam Thomas and Ariyah Copeland head off to the next adventures in their lives while Koi Love, Aaronette Vonleh, Anna Gret Así, Gisela Sanchez, and Derin Erdogan head to the transfer portal. There’s no guarantee that the transfer bug has finished passing through the program, either.
Head coach Adia Barnes will be replacing some of those players with incoming transfers, but to figure out what she might be looking for, a way-too-early depth chart is a good place to start. What does Arizona have and what does it need?
Some of the position categories overlap and some players fit into multiple categories, but the most obvious thing about the roster is that the frontcourt has very little depth at this point. Barnes has been publicly linked to a guard on the transfer market so far, but she has brought in frontcourt help via the transfer portal in both of the past two seasons.
- Returners: Helena Pueyo (senior), Shaina Pellington (5th year)
- Additions: Paris Clark (freshman)
- Losses: Derin Erdogan (junior), Anna Gret Así (sophomore)
Shaina Pellington and Helena Pueyo were the primary lead guards last season with Pellington pegged as the starter. For Pueyo, it wasn’t what she came to Arizona to do, but she was very effective as a distributor and a defender in that role. What she was no longer as effective at was scoring.
Paris Clark is a McDonald’s All-American and the New York Gatorade Player of the Year who is set to sign with the Wildcats this month. Arizona was lucky to snag her after UCLA opted to take yet another guard in their freshman class in No. 2 overall recruit Kiki Rice. Clark decided to decommit from the Bruins and the Wildcats were the beneficiaries.
It’s difficult to judge anyone from an all-star game, but in the McDonald's All-American game Clark had the kind of aggressiveness that Arizona could use in the backcourt. She also showed some defensive hustle by getting back to block a fastbreak layup by future teammate Maya Nnaji.
The losses at this position won’t be felt much on game day in terms of minutes played. Derin Erdogan got playing time down the stretch, but even at the time it almost seemed like an audition opportunity for the next step in her career.
Who knows how effective Anna Gret Así might have been as a point guard. She was listed as a one on most of the recruiting sites before she came to Arizona, but both she and Barnes made it clear that she would not be playing the position for the Wildcats. Limiting her options from the get-go might not have been the best plan for either side, but the transition wasn’t guaranteed regardless of which position she played.
With the guards coming into the program—including the combo guards listed below as “shooting guards”—the need is not huge in the backcourt, although Arizona is still in need of reliable outside shooting.
- Returners: Madi Conner (sophomore), Helena Pueyo (senior), Taylor Chavez (5th year), Bendu Yeaney (5th year)
- Additions: Kailyn Gilbert (freshman), Lemyah Hylton (freshman)
- Losses: Anna Gret Así (sophomore)
The two-guard position is the one least in need of addressing in the offseason. While Pueyo played primarily the one last season, she was originally brought to Arizona to play either the two or the three. Whether she is prepared to go back to that position is unknown considering how her scoring and shooting have tapered off over the past two years. At one time, though, her shooting touch was what Barnes praised the most.
Bendu Yeaney has received the starting nod for most of the past two seasons, but scoring often stalled when she and Pellington played together this season. With neither being an accomplished outside shooter, Arizona was once again faced with zone and “ten feet in the paint” defenses. The tandem had difficulty beating those defenses.
Barnes brought in more shooters last season but often fell back on the defensive-oriented unit. It wasn't just a coaching decision, though. Even with the designated shooters in the game, Arizona often struggled to put the ball through the hoop, especially in the halfcourt.
That led to long periods of not scoring and an early exit from the tournament when Barnes couldn’t find a combination that could put points on the board. At one point relatively late in the season, Yeaney said that the players didn’t all know the plays. There were indications against North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament that this had occurred again.
With two top 100 combo guards coming in from the high school ranks and Yeaney, Conner, Chavez, and Pueyo still officially on the roster, Arizona is stocked at this position. Even if the Wildcats were to lose one more of these returners, they would still be in fairly good shape as far as numbers.
That doesn’t mean that another shooting guard won’t be added to the roster, but it would need to be a specific type of player to make sense. An efficient shooter with experience is the only kind of player that would be useful here. Another athletic defense-first player with suspect shooting skills or a passive offensive game is not going to give this team anything it doesn’t already have in (over) abundance.
This unit doesn’t need a lot of additions, but it does need to be used wisely next year. Arizona needs to find more consistent offense and shooting guards who can’t or don’t shoot will be a problem for them. That’s a concern with one guard from the transfer portal whom Barnes is known to have visited already.
According to photos posted online by the player’s father, Barnes went on a home visit to meet former Oklahoma State guard Lauren Fields. Fields has nice scoring numbers, averaging 15.4 points per game last year, but her other stats give pause when considering the needs of Arizona.
Fields is a volume shooter with low percentages (32.9 from the floor, 28.4 from 3, and 63 from the free-throw line). Although they aren’t volume shooters, both Yeaney and Pellington have a similar profile when it comes to distance shooting and free throws. Both shoot better than Fields from 2-point distance, but the difficulties from 3 and the line are consistent.
It doesn’t matter whether Fields would play at the one or the two, there are players with redundant skills at both positions. Will Arizona again be in the position of arguing that “we’re not Maryland” when the offense stalls if the Wildcats don’t add higher-percentage shooting?
- Returners: Helena Pueyo (senior)
- Additions: Lemyah Hylton (freshman)
- Losses: Gisela Sanchez (sophomore), Koi Love (senior), Sam Thomas (grad)
Sam Thomas was the starter at the three for the past five years. That’s a lot of experience to replace. Arizona has no one at the position on the roster, although Pueyo has the size. The only newcomer who could potentially fill the position is 5-foot-11 Lemyah Hylton.
The question is what kind of defender Hylton is. It’s unlikely that she’s of Thomas’ caliber, but Thomas had to develop before she was the elite defender she turned into, as well.
Considering the questions around this position and the number of backcourt players on the roster, this might be the best place to play Pueyo rather than putting her at the one or two. Thomas was known to bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense at times, so it’s not like the ball-handling skills Pueyo possesses would go to waste.
Regardless of who starts here, this is one of the positions Barnes and her staff need to focus on now that they have at least four available scholarships.
- Returners: Lauren Ware (junior), Cate Reese (5th year)
- Additions: Maya Nnaji (freshman)
- Losses: Gisela Sanchez (sophomore), Aaronette Vonleh (sophomore), Koi Love (senior)
Cate Reese is already into her rehab period following shoulder surgery, which should thrill Arizona fans. Reese was the best player on last year’s team and her combination of talent and experience will make her the best on next year’s as long as she’s healthy. The Wildcats need her.
Combinations in the frontcourt will fluctuate. While Reese and Lauren Ware typically start the game together, they also played with other frontcourt mates last season. Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American Nnaji is the only one on the roster who could fill that spot next season. The Wildcats need to be aggressive in the portal for the simple reason that they currently have 15 fouls to give before they have no one to play inside.
- Returners: Lauren Ware (junior)
- Additions: Maya Nnaji (freshman)
- Losses: Aaronette Vonleh (sophomore), Semaj Smith (5th year), Ariyah Copeland (grad)
This position is related to the last since the players Arizona typically has at the position are interchangeable. For the last several years, the Wildcats have only had one or two players specifically designated as “centers” and those players rarely played. The team usually plays with two players who are classified as power forwards.
When looking at the available players, it’s important that the personnel fits the style Arizona plays. Bringing players in just for the sake of filling the position can cause as many problems as it solves. Last year was a case in point.
Ariyah Copeland was an addition to last year’s roster that didn’t seem to work for either side. When the grad student was in the game, Arizona had to make changes to its defense. Barnes said that they were “just different” with Copeland playing instead of Ware or Reese.
Eventually, Copeland’s minutes started to wane with Barnes citing “match-ups” when asked about her presence on the bench. Copeland only played double-digit minutes once after the Jan. 15 game at Oregon when she fouled out in 21 minutes. She averaged just 5.7 minutes per game in nine appearances after that and didn’t score in six of the nine games. She also missed several games due to migraines.
If you are not in practice every day, it’s tough to know whether adding a player who doesn’t fit the schemes or style of play and trying to make her fit has an effect on the development and motivation of younger players at the same position. It’s not difficult to see how it could be a problem, though.
Whether it had an effect on other players last season, there are other implications for adding players who aren’t equipped to play Arizona’s style of defense or offense. The biggest is that it could leave the team going home early in the tournament again as Barnes struggles to find something that works on both ends of the floor.
How the staff fills out the frontcourt positions and whether they bring in players who can spread the floor next year will be critical to whether they can live up to the No. 12 ranking that ESPN gave them in the “way-too-early” Top 25.