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Taking Stock: How Arizona women’s basketball is looking under coach Adia Barnes

Oregon State v Arizona Photo by Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

The offseason is here, with all of Arizona’s sports done for 2021-22 and the 2022-23 campaigns still a little ways away.

Which makes this a great time to step back and see how all of the Wildcats’ programs are doing.

Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at each of the UA’s 19 men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future. We’ll break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.

Next up: Adia Barnes’ women’s basketball team.

How it looked before

Before Barnes arrived, Arizona had not been consistently relevant in women’s basketball since the early 2000s. The team wasn’t competitive. The fan base was apathetic or nonexistent. As far as women’s sports went, it looked like Arizona was and would always be a softball school.

Barnes has not only resuscitated the program since she came back to Tucson in 2016-17, but she has built it to heights that were once mere dreams.

Where things stand now

For a team that came into the season ranked No. 22 and had no real expectations on the national scene the year after losing the best player ever, it still felt like a disappointment when Arizona limped to the finish line and was bounced from the NCAA Tournament on its home court in the second round. The Wildcats had blown the early-season expectations out of the water, rising to a program-best No. 4 in the country before falling apart down the stretch.

Part of the problem was an injury to the team’s best player, Cate Reese. The senior injured her shoulder against Washington State on the season's final road trip. Reese sat out the rest of the regular season and Pac-12 Tournament before returning for the NCAA Tournament. As soon as that ended, she was in surgery to repair the damage done to her shoulder.

There were warning signs before that, though. Being up comfortably at Oregon before letting the Ducks rush past them for the victory in mid-January might have been the first major sign. The game was remembered as much for the conflict between the coaches and Barnes’ displeasure with the officiating as anything, but the play should have been a sign that things were not on solid ground.

Then came the sluggish game at Arizona State when the Wildcats could not defend and no one except Shaina Pellington could score. Then, in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament, Arizona played terrible offense and couldn’t overcome a Colorado team it had defeated by almost 20 a few months earlier.

When North Carolina ended Arizona’s season, Barnes almost seemed relieved. She promised that there would be changes to the roster. And, boy, were there ever.

The Wildcats had 15 players on the roster last season. Two were playing their final year of eligibility. Of the remaining 13, only five were still Arizona Wildcats when the transfering was done. Barnes stated flatly that many of those who left were gone because she wanted it that way. She was looking to get rid of “attitudes.”

That kind of bloodletting didn’t lead to panic, though. Barnes brought in three transfers, all of whom were the best players on their teams last season. She also brought in Arizona’s first top 10 class, including Maya Nnaji, the highest-ranked player in program history.

Barnes didn’t stop there, either. In December, she secured the commitment of 2023 forward Montaya Dew. Dew has continued her climb up the rankings and is currently ESPN’s ninth-ranked player. If that ranking stays like it is, she would match Nnaji as the top-ranked recruit in program history.

Things got even better this summer. Tenth-ranked post Breya Cunningham visited the Wildcats the weekend of June 19. Before she left, she had given Barnes and the team her commitment. She and Dew give Arizona its first ever pair of top 10 players in the same class.

Arizona is headed for another big season next year, especially if Reese comes back at 100 percent. Then, the Wildcats have the weapons to continue taking things to the next level in the years after that. A fan base that led the Pac-12 in attendance last year will be there to watch.

One big question

The question comes up every year. Can Arizona finally become a consistent offensive threat? Barnes thought she had the balance she needed last season, but by the end of the season, she was back to saying the Wildcats weren’t a high-scoring team like Maryland and that they would rely on the defense to keep their heads above water.

Without Aari McDonald, it wasn’t possible to do that. At least, it wasn’t possible against the top teams at crucial points in the season. McDonald had the ability to consistently turn defense into offense and she was able to take a huge offensive load on her back successfully. No one was able to do that consistently in 2021-22.

When Paris Clark signed her letter of intent in April, Barnes once again sounded optimistic about the team being more balanced and effective on offense this season solely because of the class she signed.

“I think it’s very difficult, even last year, that Shaina (Pellington) was the one that can create,” Barnes said in mid-April. “And before that, Aari created a lot of shots. I think when you’re more dangerous is when you have multiple players that can create their own stuff. So when you become stagnant, you’re not just looking to give it to the creator, and I think that’s what’s special about this class.”

In addition to the class being full of players who can create for themselves and others, the Wildcats brought in transfers who can create. They saw up close what Jade Loville can do when she was with ASU. Lauren Fields was able to get her shot at Oklahoma State. Esmery Martinez was a consistent scorer for West Virginia.

Now, Barnes needs to weave the pieces together to avoid some of the personality conflicts that arose last season.

And, if they need to crib from Maryland’s style, the Wildcats even brought in former Maryland assistant coach Bett Shelby this year as a special assistant to Barnes. Maybe they can’t be the Terrapins, but having some of that offense sure wouldn’t hurt.