At this point, head coach Adia Barnes says that she laughs when her rotation decisions are questioned by those outside the program. It’s not about individuals or just about offense. It’s about the entire team and how it functions together, especially on defense.
“That’s what people don’t understand,” Barnes said. “They don’t understand there’s matchups. There’s different combinations that aren’t good together, defensively at all or offensively. So, those are the things that people don’t get.”
In the close loss at Utah, those were the questions she dealt with after the game. She says that she’s dealing with a team that is much better offensively than it’s been since she arrived but does not have the same flair on defense simply because of the personnel.
“Last year we couldn’t score,” Barnes said. “And so, we could play defensively. Like, ‘Oh, we can’t score!’ This year we can score but we don’t have anybody with a real defensive mentality and like the want and the will to shut their opponent down. And that’s a mentality. And I think that we’re also not as athletic as we’ve been in the past. I recognize that we’re getting better, but I don’t think there’s anybody on the team that has been focused on defense.”
As a result, she tries to help players improve where they can and uses those who best fill the roles she most needs. That favors Lauren Fields and Shaina Pellington in the backcourt, the two players who Barnes notes as her best on-ball defenders. She thinks Pellington could be even better, though.
“There isn’t like one defensive stopper,” Barnes said. “I think Lauren’s the closest to it, and I think Shaina is capable, but it’s not the mentality. I think the difference if you look at Shaina and Aari [McDonald], Shaina is probably even more athletic and bigger, a little bit stronger. But I think the mentality of Aari has always been more defensive minded. So, I think Shaina is capable of doing the things the Aari did, but I think the mindset is different—and she’s improving that mindset, but I think she can do what Aari did.”
Regardless of whether the players have the same mindset as past defenders, the numbers don’t indicate that the defensive end results are poor. They are lower than the final two years of McDonald’s college career, though.
Arizona’s best defensive rating (opponents’ points per 100 possessions) since the 2009-10 season came in its Final Four year of 2020-21.* The Wildcats ended that season with a 79.5 defensive rating. The season before that, the program had its second-best defensive rating with an 81.2.
The last two seasons have been almost identical. Arizona ended with its third-best defensive rating last season (84.6) and is less than half a point behind at 84.9 so far this year. With the improved offense, Arizona actually has its best net rating not just in Barnes’ tenure but going back to that 2009-10 season.
This season’s Wildcats outscore their opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions. The difference is that Arizona has its best offensive rating at 105.9 points per 100 possessions this year. That’s almost six full points higher than the next-best season, which was 2019-20.
But Barnes doesn’t want to be just a good team. She wants a great season and a long run in the tournament. That means they need to improve where they can.
“I think that it’s just been a challenge getting us to want to play defense and want to box out,” Barnes said. “That’s a mentality. And it’s not bad. It’s just the personnel of your team. So, our team is more offensive minded. I can tell you this…in six years, there was never a team that we could have run two offenses and scored 80 points. Like, never. We could probably score like 30 points in the past. So, it is what it is. You have to adjust to your teams. And so, I know that we can score when we’re getting good shots and sharing the ball. So, it’s my job to get us better and we’re only gonna get better if we get better defensively.”
*Stats in this article come from Her Hoop Stats. That database only goes back to the 2009-10 season.
Arizona Wildcats (14-4, 4-3) @ Arizona State Sun Devils (7-11, 0-7)
When: Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023 at 3 p.m. MST
Where: Desert Financial Arena in Tempe, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Arizona
Streaming: Streaming is available via the Pac-12 Now app or online. Both options require a subscription via a TV provider. Streaming is also available with a subscription to a TV package that includes the Pac-12 Network via Sling, Fubo, or Vidgo.
Radio: Listen to the call by Derrick Palmer online on The Varsity Network or on the radio at KTUC 1400 AM.
Stats: Arizona State Live Stats
Rankings: Arizona is ranked No. 19 by the Associated Press and No. 15 by the WBCA. ASU is not ranked in either major poll.
The Wildcats are No. 25 in the NET and No. 28 in the Her Hoops Stats rankings. The Sun Devils are No. 120 in the NET and No. 122 according to HHS.
Projections: Her Hoops Stats projects an Arizona win no matter where the game is played. In Tempe, the Wildcats are favored by 12.8 points and have a win probability of 85.3 percent. The point total is projected to be 135.9 points.