Arizona Wildcats head coach Adia Barnes can be forgiven for forgetting that her team isn’t actually opening Pac-12 play on Friday against Colorado women’s basketball. After all, Arizona’s actual Pac-12 opener was a one-off game against Arizona State bookended by big nonconference games against Texas and Gonzaga.
Barnes has said several times in the past few weeks that she was happy that her team gets to open Pac-12 play at home.
“We haven’t been at home and for opening weekend, I think since I got the job here,” Barnes said. “So, I think in eight years, so a good opportunity to start off in the Pac 12.”
It is a new thing, though. Arizona’s first Pac-12 game this season came against the team that looks like it’s headed to the bottom of the conference for the second straight year. The Wildcats blew out the Sun Devils in Desert Financial Arena by the score of 91-52 on Dec. 17. Truth is that UA probably should have won by more that day. If a bit of loose play in the third quarter had been tightened up, the Wildcats could have easily scored 100 and kept their opponent in the 40s.
Colorado, which is ranked No. 5 by the Associated Press and No. 7 in the WBCA poll, is not ASU, to put it mildly.
“I think they’re even a better team...this year than they were last year,” Barnes said. “Two great shooters on the perimeter, a good presence inside at the four and the five. And they’re just a really good team, a team that has continuity and chemistry and has been together for a couple years now. I think those are the toughest teams to play. And they’re just really good. I think they don’t play probably as aggressive as they have in the past. But they shoot it a lot better. And [Jaylyn] Sherrod is the catalyst on offense and defense who is their engine that makes them go and I think Frida [Formann] is playing at a really, really high level.”
The numbers bear that out. Like Arizona under Barnes, the Buffaloes have the reputation of a defensive program under head coach JR Payne. They’re still an outstanding defensive team this season. Her Hoop Stats has them ranked 21st on defense. However, they’ve improved substantially on offense this year, too. They stand at No. 15 on offense and have an overall rank of 16th.
On offense, CU will test Arizona both inside and outside. Aaronette Vonleh and Quay Miller provide punch inside. On the perimeter, Formann can knock down the three while Sherrod is quick and able to distribute the ball to the tune of 5.8 assists per game. Vonleh (15.4 PPG), Formann (14.3 PPG), and Sherrod (14.8 PPG) all score in double figures. Miller is just under double figures at 9.3 points per game.
“We left her open in transition [last year], and Frida is such a great shooter,” Barnes said. “And she’s playing even better than she was last year. She’s improved a lot. They’re a really good team and they have a lot of good weapons and players that can get hot and they’re very capable. I mean, Sherrod also concerns me because she’s the one if you let her go downhill, she’s finding Frida for those shots.”
Arizona split the games with Colorado last season. The Buffs won by seven in Boulder. The Wildcats took the game in Tucson by 19.
This year, things are very different, though. Arizona started five players with at least three years of college basketball experience last season. Shaina Pellington had been at Arizona for four years and Cate Reese was playing her fifth year as a Wildcat.
This year, the Wildcats start two freshmen and a sophomore. Meanwhile, Colorado generally starts two graduate students, two seniors, and a junior. All of them have been in Boulder for at least two years while Sherrod and Formann have been there for their entire careers.
Is this relatively inexperienced group ready to face this kind of experience and talent every game for the next three months?
“I think they just don’t really know what to expect,” Barnes said. “They’re gonna see real fast that...it’s gonna be tough. Our conference, I’ve been saying this is by far the best it’s ever been—even from when I played—and the most competitive it’s ever been. So I’m excited to start.”
No. 5/7 Colorado Buffaloes (11-1, 1-0 Pac-12) @ Arizona Wildcats (9-4, 1-0 Pac-12)
When: Friday, Dec. 5 at 6 p.m. MST
Where: McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz.
TV: Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Mountain
Radio: Listen online
Stats: Arizona Live Stats