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What we learned from Arizona women’s basketball’s opening weekend of Pac-12 play

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 29 Women’s Arizona State at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The first three games of the Pac-12 season were difficult. Not only did Arizona have to face No. 2 Stanford in Maples Pavilion during its first weekend, but the Wildcats had to do it in the last of three games played from Thursday evening through early Monday afternoon.

With the unbalanced schedule, it’s easy to say that some of the things Arizona did this week—good, bad or indifferent—were not true demonstrations of where the Wildcats are roughly one-third of the way through the season. While that may be true in some cases, it’s also true that some of the things Arizona did this weekend were continuations of trends seen earlier in the season.

Arizona struggles against a strong frontcourt and size

One of the disadvantages of the kind of nonconference schedule that Arizona typically plays is that it is full of teams that rely heavily on guard play. Dominant posts are few and far between on the type of mid-major opponent that Arizona tends to have on its preconference slate. The order of the day on most of those teams are undersized guards at the one and two and bigger guards at the three and the four. A small forward may roam the post.

There are challenges to playing that kind of lineup, but they are not the same challenges that Arizona tends to face once it starts playing ranked teams and Pac-12 teams.

Kansas was the first team to really expose the Wildcats in this way. The absence of Lauren Ware is an issue that Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has repeatedly said would hurt them. She mentions Ware’s prowess as a post defender and as a communicator. That doesn’t even address the loss of size and depth. Without 6-foot-5 Ware, Arizona is down to three posts and only one player on the team over 6-foot-2 in 6-foot-4 Maya Nnaji.

It was apparent that size and dominance in the post were difficult for Arizona when they faced their first opponent who hovered around the Top 25. Against Kansas, the Wildcats were pushed around by Taiyanna Jackson, who went off for 19 points and 15 rebounds.

It wasn’t just Jackson, though. Her teammates ruled the paint, as well, with the Jayhawks getting 50 of their 77 points in the paint. They also grabbed 51 rebounds to Arizona’s 31.

Like Kansas, Stanford only has two players on its roster who are under 5-foot-9. In the Cardinal’s case, it’s actually only two players under 5-foot-10 in freshmen guards Talana Lepolo and Lauren Green. There is size at every position for SU.

The Wildcats did a fairly good job against Cameron Brink. She went 3-for-15 from the floor. Part of that was her settling for shots outside the arc, where she was 0-for-6. She was still able to do damage because of the difficulty Arizona had guarding the Cardinal without fouling. Brink went to the line eight times and, unlike some of her teammates, was very efficient there with six made foul shots.

Helena Pueyo had some nice moments of defense against Haley Jones. No one was able to stop the “big guard” for the Cardinal, though. She went off for 18 points to go with her 16 rebounds.

Once again, Arizona was buried on the boards. Stanford won the rebounding battle by 20, just as Kansas did in early December. For the Cardinal, it was 53-33.

The Wildcats have improved in a lot of areas since the Kansas game. The Baylor game proved that. But Arizona’s struggles with teams that have a great deal of length has proven itself not to be an isolated issue.

Free throw issues abound

Another issue that Arizona is still dealing with is even more serious than its problems with length. This problem has been an issue for the Wildcats for the last several years, and it shows no signs of abatement. While Arizona went 7-for-9 from the free throw line against Stanford, the weekend as a whole was one of poor free throw shooting.

The Wildcats shot a total of 50 free throws in their three games against ASU, Cal, and Stanford. They hit 58 percent of them. They went 10-17 against the Sun Devils and 12-24 against the Golden Bears. It was the sixth time in their 14 games that they shot 60 percent or less as a team.

The problems are multifold and spread across the team. Four of the bottom five free throw shooters are primary rotation players. All shoot less than 65 percent from the line. Three of those are the starting guards.

The most talked about of those three players is Shaina Pellington, who is last on the team in free throw percentage among those who have taken more than two free throws this year. Her 55.2 percent success rate at the line is also the most obvious because she draws the most fouls on the team.

Fellow starters Jade Loville and Lauren Fields are also struggling from the free throw line. Both have better shooting percentages from the field than Pellington with Loville shooting 47.4 percent from the 3-point line and Fields connecting on 34.3 percent of her 3-point shots. Yet, Fields hits just 56.4 percent of her free throws and Loville is only making 62.5 percent of hers.

Of the starting five, only Cate Reese and Esmery Martinez are hitting over 70 percent of their free throws. Both members of the starting frontcourt are good for 71.1 percent of their free throws. Of those who have taken more than 10 free throws this season, that trails only Kailyn Gilbert at 72.7 percent.

It’s a problem that Pellington is 32 of 58 from the line this season, and she gets most of the grief for the free throw issues. Even if she were the only poor free throw shooter on the team, though, free throw percentages are not the only free throw issues. It’s an even bigger problem that her 32 made free throws are more than the free throws attempted by six others on the team despite two of the six playing significantly more than she does.

Reese at 45 attempted free throws is second in FTA on the team. Behind her are Fields (39) and Martinez (38). Both of those players average roughly the same minutes as Pellington but draw far fewer fouls per game and per 40 minutes.

On a per-40-minutes basis, Pellington shoots 7.7 free throws. Per game, she sits at 5.8 attempts. Of her fellow starters in the backcourt and on the wing, Fields shoots 4.8 free throws per 40 minutes and Loville attempts 2.7. Pueyo, who plays more minutes per game than anyone else on the team, is even lower at 1.0 free throw per 40 minutes. That is last among primary rotation players and next-to-last on the entire team ahead of only Lemyah Hylton.

Loville’s numbers are understandable because she primarily plays on the perimeter. Pueyo has never drawn many fouls for reasons similar to Loville, however she is playing more positions and more minutes this season, so continuing to hover around one free throw per 40 minutes—with some of those coming from being chosen to shoot technicals for Arizona—is a bigger concern. Fields is also a bigger concern since she has a game that is much more like Pellington’s in that she drives to the basket far more often than Loville or Pueyo.

The only player on the team who draws fouls at a similar rate as Pellington is Nnaji, who is sent to the line 7.1 times per 40 minutes. That will be helpful in the future if Nnaji can maintain it. Doing it as a freshman suggests that she could be even better as her career progresses. However, as a freshman, she just doesn’t get enough minutes for it to have the same kind of impact on the team this season.

Having so few players capable of getting to the line is hurting Arizona’s bottom line. A team that takes just 9.6 trips to the free throw line per game needs to take advantage of those trips.

Maya Nnaji and Kailyn Gilbert have earned Barnes’ trust

All four of Arizona’s freshmen are seeing more time than a freshman typically does under Barnes. When it comes to minutes per game, the top freshmen under Barnes all played when she was building the program. Sam Thomas is first on the list with 36.3 MPG. Lucía Alonso is next at 29.6. Next comes Reese who played 25.5 MPG as the Wildcats marched to the WNIT title in 2018-19.

The last few years, though, freshmen haven’t seen much time on the court. With the size of the roster in recent years, it’s been difficult to find minutes for them. Barnes fixed that this year by keeping her roster at 12 players. That has caused problems when players are out with injury, especially in the post where there are just three healthy players right now. But it also means that the quartet of rookies all average double-digit minutes for what might be the first time.

The last time most of Arizona’s freshman class saw significant minutes was 20180-19. Not only did Reese get the third-most minutes of a freshman during the Barnes area, but Semaj Smith played 11.8 MPG and Bryce Nixon was on the court 8.5 MPG. Both of those are in the top 15 for freshmen since Barnes took over.

This season, all four freshmen are in the top 12 for freshmen in the Barnes era. Necessity and talent come together for Nnaji. She leads the Arizona freshmen with 15.3 MPG to land in 7th of the 27 freshmen who have played under Barnes. Right behind her is Kailyn Gilbert in 8th with 14.1 MPG.

What is important about Nnaji and Gilbert is that they are seeing significant minutes during conference play. In the past, freshmen had to take advantage of their minutes during nonconference play because they were unlikely to get off the bench once Pac-12 play competition started.

Both Nnaji and Gilbert played significant roles during Arizona’s opening weekend in Pac-12 play. Gilbert played double-digit minutes against both ASU and Cal, then followed it up with nine minutes against Stanford. Against the Golden Bears, her 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting were key in a game that was closer than expected.

Nnaji is playing even more out of pure necessity, and her improvement is noticeable as the weeks pass by. She has played double-digit minutes in all but one game since the Wildcats faced Kansas. In the game when she played less than 10 minutes, it was barely below the threshold at nine minutes in the Baylor game.

When Pac-12 play started, Nnaji was on the court early and often. She played double-digit minutes against ASU (24 minutes), Cal (12 minutes), and Stanford (17 minutes). She shot at least 40 percent from the floor in all three games with her lowest shooting percentage being 40 at Stanford. Her 3-for-4 shooting from the free throw line is a high point for the Wildcats, who have not done well at the line all season. She also has four assists against four turnovers.

Paris Clark (10.9 MPG) and Hylton (10.8 MPG) are not playing as much as the other two freshmen, but they have had their moments. The pair got into the Wildcats’ Pac-12 opener against ASU. Clark saw the most time with 16 minutes. It gave her enough of an opportunity to score. She went 2-for-4 from the field and 1-for-2 from the free throw ending with five points in 16 minutes.

It bodes well for the future that Barnes can find time for her promising class. After losing almost all her freshmen from the past two classes, showing that she is willing to give opportunities and develop her young talent will help both on the court and the recruiting trail.