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Experience and humility make assistant coach Bett Shelby the perfect fit for Arizona women’s basketball

NCAA BASKETBALL: DEC 29 Women’s - UConn at Maryland Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Sometimes a player follows a coach to her next landing spot. For new Arizona women’s basketball assistant coach Bett Shelby, it was the other way around when she accepted a position as the special assistant to the head coach last June. She was even willing to step outside her comfort zone to do it.

“I was excited when [head coach Adia Barnes] wanted me to join the staff,” Shelby said. “It was definitely in a different role than I’d ever been in in my career. I’ve been a coach my entire career, so I’ve never been in that type of role. But I was willing to do it because of my admiration, respect for Adia. And also, wanting to continue to be a part of Esmery [Martinez]’s journey was important to me and seeing her through. So, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to grow in some other areas as a coach and also just have the opportunity to help the program.”

For Barnes, it was about getting Shelby on campus while she could. As is generally the case when a head coach retires, Shelby had just been cut loose by West Virginia after head coach Mike Carey retired. She had served three years as the associate head coach for the Mountaineers, and Barnes was impressed by Carey’s view of Shelby.

“I called Mike Carey before I hired her,” Barnes said. “And Mike Carey told me—and this is Mike Carey, he’s a serious guy, he’s super intense—I mean, one of the best coaches in the country and a phenomenal career, and he told me that she was the best assistant he ever had. And when he said that—he’s a hard critic—but he said that I was like, whoa. Because he’s been coaching 25, 30 years and he’s a tough coach. He’s someone who doesn’t give a lot of compliments. So, when he said that, I was like, ‘Well, okay, coming from you...’ And I see why he says that because she’s super high-energy. She works really hard. And she always thinks of ways to make your program better.”

The team finished at or above .500 in each of Shelby’s years on Carey’s staff in Morgantown with the high point being 2020-21 when they went 22-7 overall and 13-5 in the Big 12. The Mountaineers finished second in the league that season.

It was the COVID-19 “bubble” season, so WVU missed out on hosting the opening rounds just like Arizona did. The Mountaineers were a four seed in the tournament. They advanced to the second round where they lost to fifth-seeded Georgia Tech.

Those kinds of experiences are why Barnes wanted Shelby on her staff. It’s not just about having over 15 years of experience as an assistant coach. It’s about having that experience in winning programs.

Before WVU, Shelby was with North Carolina for one season. Once again, she coached in a program that went to the tournament. Prior to that, she spent three years at Maryland, where she coached or recruited six different players who would eventually be drafted into the WNBA.

“She brings a lot,” Barnes said. “And a lot of other coaches don’t have that experience to have that input at the highest level, because think about a lot of coaches that came here, they’ve had success for the first time coming here. And if you think about all the coaches that I’ve brought along, Jackie [Nared-Hairston] was kind of her first time being in a coaching role, not just recruiting. Tamisha [Augustin] had just been out of the business. April [Phillips}, it was her first Power Five. So, I think a lot of other people had never really won as much before they came here. Erin [Grant], she had never been to the NCAA Tournament until she got to Arizona. So, I think that [Shelby’s] one of the experienced ones that brings experience from elite programs.”

As Barnes pointed out, other than Salvo Coppa, the assistants at Arizona have tended to be in the early stages of their careers. Besides Coppa, the only assistant coach with extensive experience was Sunny Smallwood, the associate head coach of Barnes’ first two teams.

In Shelby, she has someone who not only knows how to get things done at a high level, but also isn’t afraid or too proud to do the little things that help a program function on a day-to-day basis.

“What I’ve noticed that sets her apart from other people is work ethic,” Barnes said. “It’s a really, really good work ethic. I think nowadays, a lot of coaches, they don’t work hard. I think that you need people that work hard and that work well, and I think she’s one of those coaches. She’s going to do whatever it takes. Like if you say, ‘Bett, we just spilled something, we don’t have a manager, can you help mop the floor?’ She will. If we say, ‘Bett, can you drive a player?’ She doesn’t think she’s above somebody. I think there’s a lot of people who aren’t willing to do all the little things, and that’s what I really like. She doesn’t have an ego. I mean, she’s signed multiple number one classes in the country, but she doesn’t care about that. She just wants to get better.”

Shelby has said the same thing since landing in Tucson. After her initial hiring and after her title change, all she talked about was wanting to see the program improve and take the next steps. She wanted to be a part of it. Now, she gets to be a part of it while returning to the aspect of women’s basketball that she enjoys the most.

“I’m excited,” Shelby said. “I didn’t know if it would happen for me or not, but I’m truly grateful to Adia for the opportunity. I have loved my time here in Arizona and I was excited that it could continue in a coaching role. And I love working for Adia. I love everything she stands for and everything she’s built here in Arizona. I think the sky’s the limit for the program.”

Barnes still needs to add one assistant coach, a director of basketball operations, and a video coordinator. She said that she expects to have those positions filled at the beginning of May.