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Arizona women’s basketball has recruited extensively overseas but what have the results been?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 13 Women’s - Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For most of the Adia Barnes era, international players have flocked to Arizona. It started with her first real class, which included Spanish guard Lucia Alonso, and never stopped. Last year, Barnes and her staff brought in Anna Gret Asi from Estonia and Gisela Sanchez from Spain to join a group that already included Shaina Pellington (Canada), Derin Erdogan (Turkey), and Helena Pueyo (Spain).

Early in her tenure at Arizona, Barnes made it clear that she recruited heavily overseas simply because she couldn’t get top Americans to look at the Wildcats. Taking over a program that had struggled for over a decade made it difficult for her to get her foot in the door. While there were rare exceptions, like Cate Reese and Sam Thomas, most top 100 recruits had zero interest in building something new. Most recruits wanted to walk the well-traveled path. It’s difficult to blame a coach for doing what she has to in order to get the best players she can. If that means turning to the international recruiting circuit, so be it.

The international flavor of the Wildcats makes for a good story, but reports that Sanchez, Asi, and Erdogan have entered the transfer portal bring up some uneasy questions: is Arizona evaluating international recruits properly, is the staff developing them properly once they arrive, are they adding players who can’t compete at this level simply to add bodies to the roster, and what effect does this all have on the student-athletes’ academic and athletic successes?

International players aren’t the only obvious component of the Arizona recruiting strategy. The steady stream of transfers into and out of the program has also become a fixture. The international players have fed that stream. So far, only Alonso, Pueyo, and Pellington have seen regular time on the court. Most of the players have left the program or never shown up.

Alonso spent four years as a Wildcat, although her minutes dramatically decreased during her junior and senior seasons when Aari McDonald was finally able to don a Wildcat jersey. In her senior year, she played just 13.9 minutes per game.

Alonso ended her career with a 40.1 percent shooting percentage from 3-point distance, which is still the best in loschool history. Her 122 games played were the sixth most in school history when she graduated. She was crucial to the rebuilding process at Arizona, but she is also the kind of player that would probably not find success in Tucson today.

Pueyo is headed into her fourth year in Tucson. She was brought in as a threat from distance, but her impact on the program has been varied and uneven. Her shooting has decreased dramatically over her career and her percentages have been unreliable. She came in shooting 38.3 percent from 3 and 39.1 percent overall as a freshman. That dropped to a career low as a sophomore when she hit 34.3 percent of her 3-point shots and just 32.3 percent from the floor. Those numbers recovered slightly her junior year—hitting 36.4 percent from 3 and 39.1 percent overall—but they were still below what Arizona needed, especially when she was attempting a career low.

Pueyo attempted 107 3-point shots as a freshman and 174 shots overall. That dropped to 70 3-pointers and 96 from the field as a sophomore. As a junior, there was yet another drop. She shot just 55 3-pointers this season and 87 overall. Her 6.7 points per game as a freshman decreased to 3.7 as a sophomore and dropped again as a junior, hitting 3.4 PPG despite her minutes holding steady over all three years.

Pueyo’s impact was felt in a different way in 2021-22 as she developed into the backup point guard who primarily defends and distributes. She averaged 1.9 assists per game as a freshman. That dropped to 1.3 APG as a sophomore but climbed to a career-high 2.5 APG as a junior.

On the defensive end, her length has helped create steals for herself and her teammates. She had 1.7 steals per game as a junior. That was an increase from 1.5 SPG her sophomore year and 1.4 as a freshman. Her steady improvement got her honorable mention notice on the 2021-22 Pac-12 All-Defensive Team.

The issue for Arizona is that they need shooting. They have multiple athletic guards who are limited when it comes to shooting or even scoring. Pueyo has turned into another one of those guards when her shooting touch was what Barnes’ praised when she joined the program and is still what the Wildcats need most.

When Pueyo first arrived, Barnes spoke of her shooting ability by saying “her 3-point shots are like layups.” That phrase started to disappear during the guard’s sophomore year and was gone by her junior season.

Pellington is the last of the international players who has had any success at Arizona. She transferred to the Wildcats after two seasons at Oklahoma. She was the Big XII Freshman of the Year in 2018. Her 13.1 points per game on 46 percent shooting in two years at Oklahoma made Barnes excited about the idea of pairing her with McDonald in the 2020-21 backcourt. That didn’t work out.

Within just a few games, Bendu Yeaney had taken over the second starting guard spot. Pellington struggled to find her way. She had just four games with double-digit scoring during her junior year seasons and her assist-to-turnover ratio was just under one. But she did have her best overall performance in the national championship game, so her offensive development was a topic of cautious optimism for Arizona fans.

This season, Pellington’s performance was up and down in a year that was similarly up and down for the team. She did improve as the year went on, though, which is what Arizona needed from her. By the end, she had improved her shooting percentage to 43.7 percent and her 3-point percentage to 26.2 percent. In her first year at Arizona, she shot just over five percent from 3-point distance.

She was solid running the team with a 1.5 assist-to-turnover ratio, but there were definitely times when she spent too much time dribbling and playing one-on-one rather than facilitating. But the fact that she was averaging 7.5 PPG when Pac-12 play started and ended averaging 11.3 is promising for her super senior season in 2022-23.

Are the performances of these three players enough to argue that Arizona’s international recruiting strategy has been successful, though? The long list of misses suggests otherwise.

The loss of international players started after Barnes’ third season when sophomore Kianna Barkhof departed. That was also the season when Arizona fans learned the hard way that international players sometimes just don’t show up. Five-star recruit Valeria Trucco was an integral part of the highest-rated class Barnes had prior to the 2022 class. She signed in Nov. 2017, but when the class arrived in the summer of 2018, she wasn’t part of it.

It’s understandable why someone like Trucco might decide to stay home. Italian clubs were anxious to make her a professional sooner than later, and that’s exactly what they did. In addition to personal issues that included the death of a family member, making money to play basketball while staying close to her loved ones was a decision that many people would make. It has worked out for Trucco who is the starting center for Allianz Geas Sesto San Giovanni, a team in the Italian Serie A1 league.

The bigger concern is that most of the players who have arrived in Tucson have been unable to find a place on the court and have had to relocate once again. To come halfway around the world to a strange country and try to navigate both college and basketball is a major undertaking, especially for someone who is barely out of high school and without her support system.

That has been the path of Barkhof, Tara Manumaleuga, Mara Mote, Sevval Gül, Birna Benonysdottir, Marta Garcia, and now Sanchez, Erdogan and Asi. Of the 13 international recruits and one international transfer Barnes has received commitments from, nine have transferred out of the program and one didn’t show up.

The argument can be made that this is simply the way college basketball is now. Transfers will be brought in to improve the team, especially a team that’s down-and-out like Arizona was when Barnes arrives. That means that other players have to move out to make room.

While that is undoubtedly the world of college basketball these days, the implications for an international player are much larger than for a U.S. player. It also raises the question of whether development as a concept is being abandoned by both players and coaches across the country. The Wildcats are not immune to those questions considering the influx of incoming transfers replacing the stream of outgoing transfers that didn’t develop within the program.

Like many high major programs, Arizona has retained and developed very few of its freshmen, whether they come from the U.S. or overseas. In addition to the two international freshmen who are transferring this year, Arizona is also losing American freshman Aaronette Vonleh.

That’s not a new issue, either. Since 2016, six of the 11 American high school recruits who showed up in Tucson have transferred out. Five of those were gone within the first year. That means a total of 14 of 23 incoming players—both international and domestic—have left the program in the past six years. The only player from the 2021 class who is currently not in the portal is Madi Conner, who enrolled early.

It’s easy enough to say that the players didn’t play because they weren’t good enough and their loss won’t be felt by the program, but last year’s class was ranked No. 16 in the nation even before the addition of Sanchez. The question is why three of four members of a top 20 class would turn out to be “not good enough.” Is something going on within the youth development programs that causes players to be ill-prepared for college basketball? Are coaches taking marginal players because of the 15 scholarships they are allowed to fill, then moving on quickly from those players when something more appealing pops up in the transfer portal? Is there less commitment to development on the parts of both college athletes and coaches today?

There’s also the question of what schools owe to student-athletes. That question might apply to international students even more. Some of these players, like former Arizona guard Manumaleuga, are as young as 17 when they pack up and move across the globe without their parents, trusting what they have been told by their new coaches.

The conversation around college sports has become one of pure economics in the past several decades. The arguments are over whether or how much cash student-athletes should make during their college careers. The questions about the value of the education that is behind the concept of the student-athlete are largely ignored if not openly sneered at. With that, questions about whether the floods of transfers are good for the student-athletes’ academic pursuits are also ignored.

The sit-out year that was once required for athletes who transferred was certainly applied unevenly between and even within sports. It was initially meant as a way to ensure academic success, especially in sports that had a larger demand on the students’ time like football and basketball. The student had a year to get acclimated to the new university, possibly making up credits that didn’t transfer, while athletic demands were minimized. The reasoning behind this rule had long been forgotten or just ignored; it was removed by the NCAA because it was considered an unfair restriction on athletes’ movement.

Considering the extra challenges that many international students face when entering U.S. universities, questions about the impact of changing schools need to be explored in the context of international student-athletes to see what effect the increase in transferring is having on them. With so little debate or study done on the academic impact of transferring on any student-athlete, it will take a major paradigm shift for that to happen.

In the interim, only the athletic impacts of transfer will be considered. The shaping of the debate will largely be around whether the athletes of today are more entitled and less willing to put the work in to get playing time. That’s certainly an issue, but questions about whether coaches are quick to give up on a recruited athlete and hit the portal also need to be addressed. Is development going out of style?