Many Arizona women’s basketball fans have been demanding two things in recent years: playing young players more in hopes that they won’t transfer and playing a tougher nonconference schedule. Are those two things compatible? If not, will the players and the fans stick with the process?
Finding the balance
Our recent article explored how much Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has played freshmen over the years. As expected, she played her freshmen a lot in the early years. Lack of players able to put up numbers at the Pac-12 level gave her few options. When Barnes came back to Tucson, the roster and recruiting were rather depleted. She had to do something and she had to do it fast. Through a combination of quality high schoolers and impact transfers, she did just that.
Barnes brought in her players and she played them. A lot. Whether it was transfers like Aari McDonald and Dominique McBryde or more highly regarded freshmen like Sam Thomas and Cate Reese, the players Barnes recruited to Arizona were on the floor a lot.
They made a difference very, very quickly, leading the program to the 2019 WNIT title followed by its first Final Four just two years later. It might have been even sooner if the pandemic hadn’t caused the cancelation of the 2020 Women’s NCAA Tournament. Barnes had only been a head coach for five years when she led a team to the national championship game.
Success breeds expectations, and Barnes wanted to meet those expectations. She didn’t want to get to the Final Four once and never sniff it again. She didn’t want to be the proverbial one-hit wonder. Following her previous success with transfers, bringing in more seemed like the way to avoid a letdown. It just didn’t work out the way she expected.
A combination of personalities that didn’t mesh and a lack of playing time led to discontent for both players and coaches. After a few years of losing some highly-regarded freshmen, Barnes is back to playing her youngest recruits a lot. It’s a balance she’s been searching for over the past few years.
“That’s the hard balance,” Barnes said in January 2023. “You’re winning more, you have the talent, but then it’s keeping people—like, we lost all our freshmen last year because of playing transfers. So do you take more transfers? This year I take less transfers, and we’re not as good. If I took two or three other transfers, we would have been a top-five team...[but] if I would have taken two or three more transfers, we would have lost all the freshmen. That’s the balance of winning and building. So, I think how you really win big time long term is you win with the freshmen when they’re seniors, but keeping them and winning in the interim is hard. That’s the balance I’m trying to figure out...Looking back, I would have not played some transfers as much, especially because then playing them, they leave, and we didn’t win like we should have and I lost some players I really would like. An example is Nettie (Vonleh).”
Like most coaches today, Barnes spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what her roster is going to look like from year to year. With so many transfers in college sports, knowing which players will stick around isn’t easy. That makes management and development much more difficult.
“I think a lot about it,” Barnes said in that January 2023 interview. “So, as a coach you’re trying to balance giving people experience, building them up, and then figuring out the roster So an example is that you don’t know till the end of the year who you’re really keeping. So it’s like last year I was surprised at some of the people that left because I felt like last year we had seven posts. This year, they would have a tremendous opportunity, but they don’t have any resiliency to wait and stick it out and see because they want immediate gratification, which is fine.”
When all was said and done, Barnes didn’t figure out the balance last year. Some of the freshmen were injured during preseason practice and even during the season. Maya Nnaji sat out the first game of her freshman year. She has since revealed that she was dealing with medical issues last year that she didn’t talk about. While her knee pain was mentioned as the reason she sat out the season opener, persistent issues weren’t discussed. Those kept her from ever getting in the kind of condition she wanted which in turn damaged her confidence.
Nnaji wasn’t the only talented freshman who dealt with issues that hindered her early development. Paris Clark was in concussion protocol before the season, which kept her out of practices that might have helped her get into the lineup sooner. Even after she was out of protocol, she dealt with severe headaches at times.
Still trying to get it right
Barnes tried to work it out last year. Kailyn Gilbert was the most ready of the freshmen when the season started, so she got the bulk of the freshmen minutes. Nnaji got double-digit minutes, but she was playing behind fifth-year senior Cate Reese and redshirt junior Esmery Martinez. Once Clark started rounding into shape both mentally and physically, she started eating into Gilbert’s minutes and she became the primary freshman guard off the bench.
This offseason, Barnes repeated last year’s comments about wanting to get the freshmen on the court in order to keep them. She took concrete action to make that happen. In the offseason, she didn’t pursue the top transfers because she knew they would require playing time wherever they ended up. That was time she wanted to give for the No. 3 ranked recruiting class the country to remain intact.
Now, the reality of having a tougher-than-usual nonconference and an especially difficult Pac-12 is coming into focus.
“I probably wouldn’t have scheduled exactly like this,” Barnes said. “I would have not had six games in 11 days with a young team, but I didn’t know. Hindsight is 20/20...The Pac-12 has always been so good...if I knew it was this good, we would have a weaker nonconference. Not weaker, but different...You don’t want to play a beast of a nonconference and then go into the Pac-12. And this year, we’re gonna have a tough nonconference.”
It’s difficult enough to play inexperienced players in a normal year of the Pac-12. This year, it will be especially difficult. The NET has the Pac-12 as the top conference. As many as 10 teams have been projected in the NCAA Tournament field in the early going.
Even teams expected to finish at the bottom of the league like ASU and California are currently holding their own in the NET. Oregon is the bottom-ranked league team at No. 109. ASU at No. 102 is the only other Pac-12 team outside the NET’s top 75.
As for out-of-conference teams, Arizona’s nonconference strength of schedule has dramatically improved in every ranking system where year-to-year comparisons can be made. In NET, the Wildcats ended at No. 121 in nonconference SOS last season. So far this year, they are at 80 according to Warren Nolan’s nitty gritty sheets. Massey ranks their nonconference SOS at 55 but does not have last year’s available.
While Arizona should improve as the season progresses, others will be improving, too. What does that mean for the team, both in the short term and the long term?
In the present and immediate future, it means more out-of-conference losses than they've ever had under Barnes and a strong possibility that there will be even more. Arizona is currently 6-2 with games against No. 23 Gonzaga (which just beat Stanford) and No. 5 Texas (which Barnes thinks could be a Final Four team) still facing it. Since its six-win season in 2017-18, Arizona has lost a grand total of two nonconference games. Not two per year. Two total.
“We’re young so I understand that we may lose some games, and probably more losses than past years,” Barnes said. “That’s a fact—maybe not—but I’m okay with that because I know if I’m looking at the big picture, it’s going to prepare them, to get them better. And our core freshmen are going to play, and they’re gonna get experienced, are gonna get thrown into the fire. We’re gonna have two or three on the floor at one time. It is what it is, but they’re gonna get better. And I think you see that with UCLA. They played some freshmen [last year]. That really helped Kiki Rice and helped those players. And you see it throughout our conference, but usually it’s hard to win games and do that. So we’re gonna have to balance trying to win some games and to do that, and try to sneak up on some people with a young team.”
That doesn’t mean the task is over. Just because the team is good doesn’t mean players always stick around. Just because players get on the court doesn’t, either. Last year, LSU added young players who had started elsewhere. That playing time did not stop them from transferring. At Arizona, Lauren Ware played double-digit minutes starting with her freshman season. She went to the national championship game that year She still left after her junior year. Barnes is banking on these players being different.
“The challenge would be keeping that team together and building off of it,” Barnes said. “But usually, if you get playing time, they tend to have incentive to stay places...Remember, I said I made some moves in the offseason to protect that and understanding I don’t want to have six, seven new players every year. So I understand. And the fact is, players who don’t play, regardless of how good your team is—we were ranked all year last year—they’re gonna leave. So, I really wanted to invest in our young players...Our other top players are sophomores. Keeping this core together, in a couple of years, we’re going to be very, very good...but it’s going to be the growing pains of getting through the next year or two. That’s a fact and I’m not shy about that. And so it’s my job to try to figure out creative ways to get some wins. That’s the objective.”