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A portal notebook: On roster construction, expected lineups, and philosophies both old and new for Arizona women’s basketball

NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - First Round - Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

A few years ago, Arizona head coach Adia Barnes was looking forward to the day when she would be bringing in highly ranked recruiting class after highly ranked recruiting class. It’s not like the Wildcats are scraping the bottom of the barrel. They’re bringing in their second straight class with multiple McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s not what interests Barnes as much right now, though, especially when it comes to the transfer portal.

Arizona is not alone

There are 361 Division I women’s basketball teams. Almost 35 percent of them—that’s 125 teams—have at least four players in the transfer portal. Of those, 24 just had a coaching change. A few others are going into the second year of a new head coach, a time when a player who stayed and gave the new coach a chance during the first year may decide that it isn’t going to work for her after all.

The vast majority of these teams with at least four transfers fit under neither category. They have established head coaches, some of whom have been at the school for decades and are very successful.

It’s not optimal to have so many players coming and going from rosters every year, but it is a reality around the country these days. Right now, 42 teams are losing six or more players. Arizona barely misses joining that group with five players committed to other programs. That may be the reality for the Wildcats and many others for the foreseeable future.

It’s not all negative for the program in the view of Arizona head coach Adia Barnes, although she does hear the voices of her critics. She also echoed a sentiment she expressed after several players transferred following the 2021-22 season. Sometimes it’s addition by subtraction.

“Everyone was kind of crushing me early,” Barnes said. “It’s hard as a coach because when those transfers are happening, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I was glad they’re in the portal.’ You can’t say anything.”

How many additions?

The Wildcats have added four players from the portal so far. Barnes wants to add at least one more and possibly two. She currently has 11 committed for next season.

“I’d like to get to 13 if they’re the right players,” Barnes said. “A couple more visits, so hopefully we’ll sign two more players, but we’re on some really good kids.”

She also has certain positions in mind.

“I’ll probably sign one more wing—one or two,” she said. “Maybe a combo guard and another shooter.”

Barnes is not concerned about player rankings or outside evaluations of the players at this point. She’s evaluating them based on whether they fit Arizona’s defense-first system and are committed to playing that way. She made it clear that she thinks a commitment to hard-nosed defense is at the root of successful Arizona basketball.

“We’re signing some good players that fit in,” Barnes said. “I think the mentality now is like, I don’t care if they’re five star, six star, seven star. I care that they’re workers and have a good mentality.”

Where do the new additions fit?

From their previous roles, it looked like Arizona had added three posts and a guard. That’s not how Barnes intends to use them, though.

  • Courtney Blakely is the only one of the four transfers currently committed who has played guard in her past stops. Like the other three transfers, Barnes is primarily focused on what Blakely adds to the defense.

“Courtney is a defensive specialist who can play the one or the two for us,” Barnes said. “She’s someone who can press the ball and play our type of defense and likes playing defense. There’s not a lot of players like that, so she fits us.”

  • Isis Beh spent her freshman season at UNLV before transferring to Salt Lake City College for her sophomore season. The Utah native didn’t play that season because of a broken leg. She also redshirted the next season, which she spent under Mike Carey at West Virginia. Afte finally healing, she played one year for Dawn Plitzuweit at WVU. When Plitzuweit left Morgantown after just one season, Beh took the search for a new coach into her own hands and opted to transfer.

“I knew we needed to get more size and strength inside, and I really like Isis’ experience and her physicality in the post,” Barnes said. “She’s played at a high level. Mike Carey is a very good coach. So, she’s been coached well, and they played our style of play. I really liked that about her.”

  • Fanta Gassama is another player Barnes got to help shore up the post. The junior college transfer was on the No. 1 NJCAA Division I team in the country last season, but Barnes knows she won’t come in ready to play at the level Arizona plays.

“I liked Fanta’s athleticism,” Barnes said. “I thought she’s a little bit more raw but can be developed.”

  • Sali Kourouma is listed as a forward, but “forward” can mean a lot of things. Is she a post or a wing? With Barnes’ expressed intent to get bigger so as to avoid some of the issues the team ran into last season, a 5-foot-11 Kourouma will not play the post.

“Sali, I love her athleticism from the wing position,” Barnes said. “She’s a freak athlete and she plays extremely hard.”

When people hear “wing,” they usually think of a high-scoring player who has an efficient 3-point shot. Kourouma only shot 19.2 percent from 3 last season, but that was the lowest of her career. Her best season was her freshman year at Grayson College when she shot 34.5 percent from beyond the arc. Barnes is more focused on the defensive attributes of the wing position, anyway.

“Remember how hard Bendu [Yeaney] used to play?” Barnes asked. “We were really good when we had players like that. She’s really athletic, super strong, and plays hard—I mean, like Aari [McDonald] hard. So I think that she’s really going to add at the guard position for rebounding and just scoring and just defense.”

Montaya Dew

The Wildcats have five returners from last season, including Montaya Dew, who is part of the incoming freshman class but enrolled a semester early. What role is she slated for?

Dew is 6-foot-3, making her big enough to play the post. However, she’s typically listed as a wing on recruiting sites. At Arizona, she will do both.

Barnes expects Dew to play the three and the four. Along with Kourouma and Helena Pueyo, that gives the Wildcats three players who can be effective at the wing position. They also allow Barnes to play both big lineups with Dew on the wing or a slightly smaller lineup with either 6-foot Pueyo or 5-foot-11 Kourouma.

On the recruiting trail

Like every other team in the country, Arizona spent a lot of time on the recruiting trail in April. Most other teams weren’t flying a WNBA player in to recruit, though.

While McDonald is already back in Atlanta preparing for the WNBA season, Arizona flew her to do some recruiting prior to the opening of the Dream’s training camp.

“Recruits loved that she was at the game,” Barnes said. “They were excited. Some of the AAU coaches were excited.”

It also helped Arizona, which is operating on a small staff right. Barnes expects to announce the hiring of the third assistant coach, the director of basketball operations, and the new video coordinator soon.

“We’re pretty close,” she said.