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What we learned about Arizona women’s basketball in the Battle4Atlantis

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 12 Women’s - Loyola Marymount at Arizona Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Battle4Atlantis wasn’t just three games in three days for the Arizona Wildcats. It was the end of a stretch of six games in 11 days for a team that played its first four games with nine players. There were positives and negatives, but the team showed growth over the course of the trip and that’s the most important thing for such a young group.

The Wildcats went 2-1 on the trip with wins over Memphis and South Dakota and a loss to Ole Miss. It’s unfortunate that Ole Miss and Arizona ended up on the same side of the bracket, as they were probably the two best teams in the field but could not meet in the final. Still, the Wildcats left with a third-place finish and a better understanding of who they are and what they need to work on.

Our recaps for the games against Memphis, Ole Miss, and South Dakota are at the links. What were the lessons learned?

Maya Nnaji continues to make strides

Sophomore Maya Nnaji had a lot of experience playing in front of her last year, but she has cemented herself in the starting lineup this season. She has shown considerable improvement already, and the trip to the Bahamas not only resulted in her selection to the all-tournament team but also showed that her early season success wasn’t just about playing overmatched teams. She averaged 11.7 points and 6.3 rebounds on the trip.

Nnaji is one of three players averaging double digits in scoring. Her 11.1 points per game are just behind Kailyn Gilbert and Esmery Martinez, who are tied for the team lead with 12.1 points per game. Nnaji scored just 4.4 points in 13.0 minutes per game last year. She’s almost tripled her scoring while not even doubling her minutes.

On a per-40-minute basis, Nnaji has improved in every area except rebounding. Her points per 40 minutes have gone from 13.5 to 18.6. She’s taking 14.1 shots compared to 11.4 per 40 minutes last season, and she’s hitting a higher percentage of them (49.2 percent vs 46.2 percent). Her assists per 40 have almost doubled from 1.5 to 2.9. Steals and blocks have ticked up nominally while fouls have dropped from 5.9 per 40 minutes last year to 4.1 this year.

The lone concern is the drop in rebounds per 40 minutes. Nnaji has gone from 9.8 last year to 7.2 this year. However, playing alongside both Martinez and the player discussed in the next section are likely causing that. Arizona has a much stronger inside game this year.

Breya Cunningham is quite a freshman

Breya Cunningham was officially the No. 14 recruit in the Class of 2023 when everything ended. Earlier in the cycle, she was considered top 5, though. There’s reason to believe that the earlier evaluations were the more accurate ones.

Cunningham wasn’t in top playing shape when the season started due to an offseason injury. She missed an extended period of practice and the Wildcats’ two exhibition games, but she’s been dominant even with those setbacks.

The freshman center is a terror to anyone trying to come inside. She averages 2.4 blocks per game. That ranks 29th in Division I women’s basketball and third in the Pac-12. Among freshmen, she’s second in the Pac-12 behind Washington State’s Alex Covill and fifth in the country. She’s played in more games than any of the freshmen ranked above her, so it’s not a matter of one or two big games against an overmatched opponent.

Cunningham also averages 8.7 points while shooting 70 percent and has 6.0 rebounds per game. The one part of the college game she will have to adapt to is officiating. She averages 3.3 fouls in 19.5 minutes per game, which has been an issue for several Wildcats. Other than that, she has been everything advertised.

Fouls could be a problem

With a defensive-oriented team, how a game is called can have a bigger effect on a team’s success. The Wildcats are currently in the 12th percentile in fouls committed. Last year, they ended in the 19th and the year before in the 32nd. They have not been in the top third of women’s basketball as far as avoiding fouls since the 2020-21 season.

It can also be to a team’s detriment if it has a lot of size up front, which Arizona has this year. It’s just a fact that there are calls that will go against a bigger player if a smaller player makes contact with her. Add to that the fact that a defensive-oriented team simply is more aggressive and more likely to commit fouls, and foul trouble and the bonus can work against it.

That happened to Arizona in the Bahamas. The Wildcats gave up 10 free throws to South Dakota just in the third quarter of the final game. Four players ended the contest with four fouls each. It wasn’t the first time, either.

Isis Beh fouled out of two games in Nassau and had four fouls in the other one. Those 14 fouls came in just 35 minutes of play. She averages 3.4 fouls in 12.5 minutes per game this season. That’s an enormous 11.0 fouls per 40 minutes.

She wasn’t the only one to struggle in the Bahamas or overall this season, though. Gilbert had four fouls in just 13 minutes against the Coyotes. Cunningham has fouled out of two games this season and also had four fouls against South Dakota. Martinez has at least three fouls in all but one game this year and racked up four fouls in three of the first four games.

It’s true that the officiating was uneven in the Bahamas. It simply wasn’t consistent from one quarter to the next, let alone from one game to another. However, fouls have been a problem for a few of the Arizona players in the early going—especially the frontcourt. The Wildcats have some frontcourt depth this year, but putting other teams in the bonus early is never going to be helpful.

Turnovers are a problem

Turnovers have been a theme for Arizona in the early season. It hasn’t been just one player, either. The Wildcats went into the tournament averaging 19 turnovers per game against teams that they were superior to. Last season, the team averaged just 12.5 turnovers per game for the entire season.

Part of the issue is related to offensive fouls, as the Wildcats are being called for both charges and moving screens far more often than is desirable. While it’s a trend in women’s basketball to call a lot of offensive fouls, those turnovers are probably the most damaging because they result in both the turnover and a foul that the short bench really can’t afford.

The other issue is youth and inexperience. Helena Pueyo and Shaina Pellington were both in the top 100 for assist-to-turnover ratio among Division I players. Pueyo has bumped her numbers up even higher this year, going from 2.61 to 2.80 in the early going, but it’s because she has more assists. She has gone from 2.7 to 4.0 assists per game. The problem is that she also has more turnovers, going from 1.0 to 1.4 per game. While the absolute number isn’t huge, that’s almost a 50 percent increase over last year.

Pueyo is being asked to do a lot more this year as the only returning guard with much experience. That puts more pressure on her and the young guards. Currently, seven of 10 players have double-digit turnovers and two more are in the neighborhood with nine and eight. In comparison, only five have double-digit assists.

Barnes thinks this will level out as the team gets more experienced with each other and with the college game. Arizona is depending on freshmen and sophomore guards a lot so far. They will need time to gel.

There were signs of things stabilizing in the Bahamas. Arizona didn’t start well, turning the ball over 23 times against Memphis. Against Ole Miss, that number dropped to 18. Against South Dakota, it was just 16. The team is still averaging just over 19 turnovers per game, though. It is a work in progress.