Heading into the 2023-24 season, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes isn’t just thinking about this season. The program’s future lies heavily on her mind. In many ways, it’s a return to the way she thought about things when she arrived.
There’s no getting around it. When Barnes returned to her alma mater, the Wildcats were bad. It wasn’t about one team in a particular year. It was the entire program.
Barnes has recounted incidents of players physically fighting. That was not something she was willing to accept. Instead, she was willing to accept a six-win season in her second year to clean house and establish the program she wanted.
While there haven’t been fistfights over the past two years, Barnes has talked about the locker room and attitude not being what she would have liked. After last season, she said that she wanted to return to some of the basics, especially on the defensive side of the ball. She also wants to bring her freshmen around. While Arizona should win more than six games, Wildcat fans might have to accept some early losses this year to get the glory Barnes hopes for in the future.
Barnes believes she needs continuity and the development of her young players to reach her goals. That has been missing the past few years as the transfer portal whisked players in and out of the program. In came older players, and out went most of the youth.
This year, Barnes wants to get that youth on the court before it’s too late. With only 10 available players, there should be plenty of playing time. Besides, while they may lack experience,
Arizona’s freshmen certainly bring a great deal of talent. All four members of the 2024 class— including Montaya Dew, who enrolled a semester early—were ranked in the top 100 by ESPN HoopGurlz. Three of the four were ranked in the top 25. That gave Arizona its highest-ranked recruiting class ever. In fact, until late in the recruiting cycle, the Wildcats had the No. 1 class according to the recruiting service even before they added Skylar Jones towards the end of the cycle. They ended with the top-ranked class in the Pac-12 and three of the top five recruits who pledged to the league.
Dew was injured over the summer and will not play this season, but Jones, Breya Cunningham, and Jada Williams should all have opportunities to get on the floor. If Chantel Jennings of The Athletic is right, Cunningham will be one of the players who grabs that opportunity with both hands.
In addition to talent, Cunningham and Williams bring a bond. The point guard and the center spent the last two years playing together for Terri Bamford at La Jolla Country Day School in the San Diego area. Before that, Cunningham played for La Jolla while Williams played closer to home in Missouri.
“I learned a lot just being under Coach Terri for so long,” Cunningham said. “She’s taught me probably 90 percent of what I know. She’s taught me everything.”
Among the top players that Bamford and her program have produced are WNBA champions Candice Wiggins and Kelsey Plum, and former Oregon point guard Te-Hina Paopao. Cunningham and Williams joined the trio as Torreys who have been selected to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game. All five pledged to Pac-12/10 schools out of high school. Bamford has led the program since 1999.
Having ties to women who are walking the path she wants to walk is crucial to Cunningham.
“It’s been a lot just having that connection to Kelsey, to somebody who’s done all three levels that you want to do, and having that advice,” Cunningham said. “She kind of puts things into perspective. And helps us understand why things are happening a certain way and why things are the way they are. And in seeing that she was so successful in college, following her advice is not a crazy thing to do.”
The relationships with past Torreys will help for a long time to come, but perhaps the most helpful relationship right now is the one Cunningham and Williams have with each other. The two years they played together makes them comfortable together on the court, but that’s not necessarily the most important thing right now. Their shared experience off the court could be the big difference maker.
“Just being able to come in with somebody who’s going through the same things as you and we’re both kind of figuring it out at the same time,” Cunningham said. “And, yeah, our relationship from high school like us being best friends and everything…kind of takes a load off on one another, like trying to talk to somebody who gets what you’re going through.”
As soon as Cunningham signed with Arizona and Barnes was able to talk about the 6-foot-4 post player, the Wildcats’ head coach began praising Cunningham’s comfort with her role. The first thing Barnes mentioned about the freshman is her physicality.
“I’m telling you Breya is the only person in America that wants to be a post,” Barnes said. “[A]ll the other fives, they want to be fours, threes. And all the threes want to be twos or ones, and all the fours want to be a three or a four. She wants to be a five. And so, I think that’s what makes her special, unique and she loves it. She loves the physicalness inside and she’s tough. So, it’s exciting.”
Cunningham said she got comfortable with the position early on.
“It’s the first position and only position I’ve learned,” she said. “I’ve always been the biggest on the team. So, it’s always the spot that I’ve been put at.”
While Cunningham is a true five, Williams might be the first true point guard that Barnes has had since she started her head coaching career. In the past, her starting lead guard tended to be a combo guard. Aari McDonald and Shaina Pellington both led the Wildcats in scoring as the starting lead guard; McDonald was the better scorer while Pellington had superior assist and assist-to-turnover numbers. Neither was a prototypical point guard. Williams could finally give Arizona someone who looks to the teammate first.
“Jada is a true point guard, a leader,” Barnes said. “She’s learning how to be a leader in college, and she already has those those qualities. She can shoot it. She’s tough. She’s competitive.”
The most important thing Barnes will want from her lead guard is strong defense. Like all freshmen, that will be something that Williams needs to work on, but she thinks she has what it takes to become the kind of defender her head coach wants. It just takes mental commitment.
“Be confident in my defense,” Williams said. “My defense can be really good, I think. Just embracing the struggle is really important here. If you are scared coming in, it’s gonna hurt you. But if you’re willing to learn, willing to put yourself out there and soak up everything you need, you’ll be just fine.”
Soaking up everything they need is going to be vital for this young group. There aren’t a lot of returners to hide behind this season. If they can soak up what they need from both the coaches and the handful of veterans the Wildcats have, they all should be just fine.