A few years ago, Arizona fans would have been thrilled to see the women’s basketball team ranked No. 22, sporting a 16-5 record, tied for fourth in the conference at 6-4 with eight games to go, and firmly in the field for the NCAA Tournament. In 2023, the question is why they aren’t even better. It’s the price of success for a head coach and a program.
It’s not just the fans who think they should be better, though. The Wildcats coaches and players do, too. Arizona head coach Adia Barnes has gone back and forth about her need to have “grace” with her team this year and the idea that they aren’t where they should be. The players harp on the same things and commit to being better and more consistent.
“I think our style of defense, it’s aggressive, and I think we just need to get a little bit better at that as a team,” said fifth-year senior Cate Reese. “I think that that’s kind of what killed us on Sunday...our screen defense, our pick and roll defense wasn’t very good. I take accountability for that. But I think we’re gonna get better at it. We’re working on it every single day. So, I think we just got to focus a lot more on it during the game.”
It’s true that the Wildcats brought in seven new players and only had five returners. It’s true that the best post defender and tallest player on the team was injured, leaving Arizona much smaller in the post than it expected to be. It’s true that neither of the McDonald’s All-Americans who joined the program as freshmen are at the point where they can contribute significant minutes against the kind of competition they are faced with night in and night out in the Pac-12.
None of that means that Arizona is not a very good team that has the opportunity to improve its stock in the postseason. The opportunities start on Friday.
UCLA and USC also have opportunities this weekend. Both teams are almost exactly the same as Arizona when it comes to record. The Bruins are at 17-5 overall and 6-4 in league play. The Women of Troy are identical to the Wildcats at 16-5 overall and 6-4 in Pac-12 play. The story lines for both programs is much different than the one for Arizona, though.
USC had a large influx of new players—including former Wildcat Koi Love—and a number of transfers out of the program. Like Barnes, USC head coach Lindsey Gottlieb had to find a way to make it all work together. Most outside observers felt there would be a serious adjustment period. Unlike the Wildcats, the Women of Troy were not ranked in anyone’s Top 25 coming into the season.
Expectations before the season can affect how results are viewed during and after the season. USC is already viewed as a success story simply by outperforming expectations.
The 6-4 records also have different implications for the three teams because of who those wins and losses came against. UCLA has two wins over USC, which would give it an advantage if the season ended today. USC has a win over Stanford, which would be a huge advantage since teams’ records against those at the top of the league can come into play in cases of tiebreaks.
Both LA teams have yet another advantage over Arizona: they don’t have to come to Tucson. The only game each one plays against the Wildcats this year is in their home arenas. It might not have been the case if the plan approved by the league’s coaches in 2021 was in place. That plan would have made the conference schedule 20 games long beginning this year, meaning there would only be two teams that each team plays just once a per year. As it stands, there are four.
“I was one of the people that voted for 20 games and voted to play everybody twice,” Barnes said. “Half of our league did, and that’s one of the reasons. I think those are important games. Typically, a lot of us win at home. So definitely games you want even though sometimes when you play certain teams, you’re like, ‘Oh, Stanford twice!’ But it still helps, I think, in the scheme of things. So definitely we wish we would have had a chance to play them here.”
The position her team finds itself in now demonstrates why Barnes might feel that way.
Arizona and UCLA are close in the human polls and even closer in the computerized ratings. The Associated Press has the Bruins at No. 14 and the Wildcats at No. 22. The WBCA places UCLA at No. 16 and UA at No. 20.
In head-to-head matchups, the computers favor Arizona slightly on a neutral court. Both Massey and Her Hoop Stats give the Wildcats the edge with a win probability around 55 percent and a winning margin between one and three points.
Of course, this game won’t be played on a neutral court. The fact that both systems slightly favor Arizona as the better team shows up here in UCLA’s win probability on its home court. The Bruins’ win probability at home is very similar to what Arizona’s would be on a neutral court as is the winning margin.
If the game was played in Tucson, the Wildcats have a significantly higher probability of winning the game than the Bruins have in Pauley Pavilion. They are also predicted to win by four points or more. Massey gives Arizona a win probability of 60 percent while Her Hoop Stats puts it at 66 percent. Massey says the most likely score would be 69-65 in Arizona’s favor while HHS says that Arizona’s winning margin would be 4.7 points.
These differences show why scheduling can be so important. The Pac-12 appears to be recognizing this by appointing an executive to oversee women’s basketball before the 2022-23 season started. One of her tasks will be to look at scheduling from a high-level view. Revisiting a 20-game schedule might be one thing to look at, especially with the defections of UCLA and USC on the near horizon.
No. 22 Arizona Wildcats (16-5, 6-4 Pac-12) @ No. 14 UCLA Bruins (17-5, 6-4 Pac-12)
When: Friday, Feb. 3, 2023 at 9 p.m. MST
Where: Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, Calif.
TV: Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Los Angeles
Streaming: Streaming is available via the Pac-12 Now app or online. Both options require a subscription via a TV provider. Streaming is also available with a subscription to a TV package that includes the Pac-12 Network via Sling, Fubo, or Vidgo.
Radio: Listen to the call by Derrick Palmer online on The Varsity Network or on the radio at KTUC 1400 AM.
Stats: UCLA Live Stats
Rankings and standings: Arizona is tied with UCLA and USC for fourth in the Pac-12. All three teams are 6-4 in conference play. Overall, UA is 16-5 and UCLA is 17-5.
Projections: Her Hoop Stats and Massey both predict that Arizona would win this game if it was held on a neutral court or in McKale Center. In Pauley Pavilion, both systems give the Bruins a very small edge.