As early as the spring transfer season, Arizona women’s basketball head coach Adia Barnes wanted to return to some basics. One of those was defense above everything. Another was to be a blue-collar team that outworked its opponents and improved as the season progressed. She thinks she has that in her 2023-24 team.
“They asked me at the Red-Blue game,” Barnes said. “‘What do I think? What will this team be like? What’s the word just to describe the team?’ And I said ‘gritty.’ and I think that was a really good descriptive word because we’re tough and we’re working hard. There aren’t any egos, and I think they really are accepting coaching, and they want to get better, so that’s been fun. So, I feel like we’re gonna be blue-collar, gritty. And I said, it wouldn’t always be pretty...at first, we have a lot of new players, but I think the grittiness and the toughness is something that’s gonna stand out and you guys will see.”
Barnes is willing to take her lumps this year early while the team comes together. She plans to play her freshmen more than she has in recent years. She also has three transfers who bring the kind of intensity she wants.
“Sali [Kourouma] is really tough and physical and kind of like a brute, but then just athletic and just plays hard,” Barnes says. “I think it’s a different level of sense of urgency. She’s more experienced, but she’s a little bit older....And then Isis [Beh] played for West Virginia...West Virginia is very tough. They defend like we do, so she’s used to it. Courtney [Blakley] is really fast, known as a tenacious defender. So, I think some of it’s just the personnel that makes us tough and they’re playing really hard.”
Part of giving the freshmen and transfers lots of opportunities is the shortness of Arizona’s bench. The Wildcats have just 11 players on the roster and only 10 will play this season. There are positives and negatives to the situation for Barnes. The biggest negative is who she lost.
“The really devastating thing for me in the beginning or a couple of months ago was Montaya [Dew],” Barnes said. “Montaya has gone through so much. Losing her mom last year and just coming here in December from high school, which she would have probably been a McDonald’s All-American, and then for her to get hurt. She was the one I was like, ‘Oh, man.’ And she looks so good. And she was gonna play a lot this year. She was gonna have a really good role, but she’s doing awesome, rehabbing, and I’m optimistic about having her for four more years.”
Dew ran with the team before practice, then worked on strengthening exercises on the sidelines while they broke into groups of wings/guards and posts.
As for the positives, having a shorter bench makes it more likely that players will be satisfied with their roles.
“The good thing is you probably won’t see a lot of transfers because everybody’s gonna play,” Barnes said. “So, there’s a lot of good things. We probably won’t lose five people...[I]f I’m Skylar [Jones], if I’m Courtney, Isis, Sali, it’s great opportunities for them because we need every single player right now. So, in that sense, it’ll be a good thing for them.”
Barnes said that she will have to adjust practices even after the male practice players arrive. Practices won’t be as intense or as long because she simply can’t risk the injuries.
She’s also willing to take some lumps this season if it means building something for the future.
“I had to make some decisions in the offseason,” Barnes said. “Do I want to bring like fourth or fifth years—and we could have, we could have brought some really good fifth years—do I want to do that? And if I do that, then what’s gonna happen is Skylar, Montaya, Jada [Williams], Breya [Cunningham]...I probably lose two out of four, and maybe three out of four. And that’s just the reality. So, when I thought about, okay, well, my best teams and the way we teach, the way we coach having that continuity and that cohesiveness that takes years to build is more beneficial long term. Now the sacrifice is you may not win as many games in the interim.”
She still expects to surprise some people this season, though.
“I think for me, just this year, just given the situation, I wanted to really develop youth,” Barnes said. “And we’re going to be younger, we’re going to be underdogs, but I mean we always have been. I don’t know maybe all but one year I’ve been here we haven’t been an underdog. I think that year Aari [McDonald] was a senior. we were probably chosen like second or third. We’ve always been chosen lower in the Pac-12 and always finish higher. So, I think for me, it’s just I don’t care, because...I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re gonna be top 25 after a month or two.”