Nonconference scheduling in Division I basketball is a topic fraught with complaints and controversy on both the men’s and the women’s side of the sport. Why don’t large programs travel to the courts of mid-majors more often? Why are the costs of guarantee games in women’s basketball creeping ever upward? Why do West Coast teams have difficulty getting home games against teams from the Eastern part of the country? Is the problem really that no teams will come to a mid-major or West Coast court or is it about coaches not getting the kind of opponents they want?
“We’re diligent about it, but like the people who say that they won’t play us, there’s always a, ‘Well, who won’t play you?’ because someone will,” Gonzaga head coach Lisa Fortier said at last month’s WCC media day. “It’s just not the ones that you want to play. So, sometimes, I have to say or my assistant has to say, ‘We’ve got to play this team,’ and I wouldn’t really want to. I don’t actually really want to play Washington State this year. They’re really good. and Charlisse [Leger-Walker] was a load for us and she’s still there, but you have to play those teams. I don’t want to play Louisville. We could have pulled out of the tournament. We’re not going to, but that wasn’t what we wanted to do. So there is that like, ‘Well, nobody will play you.’ Well, did I call [Oregon head coach] Kelly [Graves]? I didn’t actually call Kelly. He didn’t call me either, and...probably neither of us wants to play each other.”
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has been on all sides of this issue since taking over the Wildcats program. As she has mentioned several times over the past seven years, when the Wildcats were bad, “everyone” was willing to play them. Once Arizona became the kind of program that was in the Associated Press Top 25 regularly and the NCAA Tournament every year, other coaches were far more hesitant to play the Wildcats at home or away.
It has taken Barnes as long as two years to fill her schedule in some seasons. During the pandemic-altered 2020-21 season, she had special difficulties. Even a team that was practicing in Tucson because of travel restrictions in its home state wouldn’t play Arizona in McKale Center that season. The New Mexico State Aggies—this year’s season opener—was that team.
Like Fortier and most other coaches, Barnes wasn’t trying to get just anyone on the schedule, though. She made it clear that she didn’t want to schedule top teams prior to conference play because the Pac-12 was so formidable. She has upgraded the schedule in recent years, but teams like South Carolina and Connecticut were nonstarters for Barnes. After all, most coaches in power conferences use the pre-conference season to teach their teams and integrate new players. Mid-major coaches don’t always have that luxury if they want to build a resume strong enough for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Barnes thinks the Wildcats should play the Aggies regularly whether it’s in McKale or the Pan American Center. They aren’t the only mid-major she has agreed to play away from the Wildcats’ crowded home arena, either. This season, Arizona will also travel to UNLV and play a neutral site game against Gonzaga that Fortier is excited about.
“I’m excited for a different challenge,” Fortier said. “We understand Tara [Vanderveer’s] style, and we understand Washington State’s style a little bit, so it’ll be fun. We’ll be challenged in a new way...So I always like to see how our team responds in a—it’s not a road game, but it’s going to be a heavily Arizona crowd compared to when we’re in Spokane—so I’m really excited for that game...I won’t tell you all the ones that have circles on them. I’ll just say they all do, but that one’s circle is good just to see how my team’s gonna respond. Circle’s a little darker.”
Scheduling higher-quality mid-majors has become more common for Arizona over the last two to three years. At one time, Barnes was scheduling road games at mid-majors like Chicago State which had an RPI or NET in the 300s and had gone winless or had single-digit wins for years. She’s kicked up the difficulty level of late.
Last season, the Wildcats traveled to the Pit to play New Mexico. The historic gym, which lets opponents know the city’s elevation and requires everyone to trek down into the crater-like arena, is threatening even before its sizable crowd enters. Despite finishing at No. 103 in the NET, the Lobos were 18th in attendance. They averaged 4,725 fans per game compared to the 7,679 fans per game that file into McKale Center to watch the Arizona women every game.
Arizona didn’t stop there. The Wildcats played at UT Arlington last season, facing former Sun Belt and WAC Player of the Year Starr Jacobs. The year before, it was Northern Arizona, making it the second time Barnes had taken her team to Flagstaff to face the Lumberjacks.
“[It’s] important, especially when they’re in our geographical footprint,” Barnes said. “Very hard place to play...New Mexico, New Mexico State. Those are good teams. A lot of people don’t want to go there because...you can get beat on those courts and they’re coached well. But I think for us, going somewhere we can bus to in a couple hours...you’re not on the plane and traveling, I think these are games that we should play every year and they’re pretty good teams that do well in their conferences. So, I’m okay with that challenge.”
It’s something Barnes wants to see more of. She has one particular team that’s high on her wish list.
“I think it’s really hard for us to get people to come here,” she said. “I think that we should be playing GCU every year, but that’s been a challenge getting them to play. But that makes perfect sense because it saves both of our programs a lot of money and they’re usually good and we’re usually good. So, I want to play teams close to us because also for our fan base. Those are [places that fans] can drive to within four or five hours. So, I think that’s good for just our sport.”
In the past, Barnes said that Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke and Grand Canyon AD Jamie Boggs should talk and force the programs to play. For the Wildcats, it could help reduce the financial strain of guarantee games. Barnes has mentioned that guarantees in women’s basketball are taking bigger hits on Arizona’s budget in recent years.
Regardless of budgets and how the players feel about getting things started away from Tucson, Barnes is excited about doing something differently this year. While New Mexico State doesn’t get the kind of crowd its in-state rival does for women’s basketball, it’s the opportunity for the Arizona freshmen to see what it’s like to go through the rituals of road games. If nothing else, the Wildcats can draw on that experience later in the season.
Arizona Wildcats (0-0, 0-0 Pac-12) @ New Mexico State Aggies (0-0, 0-0 WAC)
When: Monday, Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. MST
Where: Pan-American Center in Las Cruces, NM
Radio: 1400 AM (KTUC)
Stats: NMSU Live Stats
Exhibitions: Arizona played two exhibitions. The Wildcats defeated West Texas A&M 103-58 on Wednesday, Oct. 25. They played with six players against WTAMU. On Wednesday, Nov. 1, UA played all but the final 38.9 seconds with just five players. An injury to Sali Kourouma with less than 40 seconds to go forced Arizona to use freshman Breya Cunningham for a very brief amount of time.
The Aggies played an exhibition against Eastern New Mexico on Sunday, Oct. 29. NMSU won 77-55.
History: The two teams have not played each other since Dec. 14, 2017. Arizona won 83-44 that day behind 26 points from JaLea Bennett. It was one of just six wins that year for the Wildcats. Freshman Sam Thomas and sophomore Lucia Alonso were in the starting lineup.
Overall, the Wildcats are 17-10 against the Aggies. The series began on Feb. 2, 1973 in Las Cruces, NM. Arizona won 48-41 in that meeting.
Last year: The Wildcats went 22-10 and finished fourth at 11-7 in the Pac-12 regular season last year. They advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament where they bowed out to Maryland Terrapins.
The Aggies finished 18-17 and went 10-8 in the WAC last season. They got to the second round of the WAC tournament where they lost 62-61 to second-seeded Southern Utah. They advanced to the third round of the WBI, losing to Cal Baptist 63-61.