There are a lot of questions for both Arizona and Arizona State as the in-state rivals prepare for their second rivalry game of the season. Neither team looks like it expected to before the season started. Neither even looks like it did when the Wildcats beat the Sun Devils 91-52 on Dec. 17 in Tempe.
Like Arizona, the Sun Devils didn’t get to play a single game before losing someone who was expected to be a major contributor. The Wildcats lost Montaya Dew, a freshman who enrolled early at Arizona so she could hit the ground running. ASU lost Tyi Skinner, its highest scorer from last season. Skinner was good for 19.1 points per game last year. That trailed only 2023 Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili.
Things have only snowballed since for both teams. In addition to Skinner, the Sun Devils are currently without Treasure Hunt, Maggie Besselink, Morasha Wiggins, and Marina Rodacaj. Besselink and Wiggins are out for the season with injuries. Rodacaj is a day-to-day decision due to injury. Hunt has not played since Dec. 20 due to personal reasons. Her return timeline is also unknown.
The loss of Hunt and Besselink appear to be the most significant relative to how ASU played against the Wildcats six weeks ago. Besselink started that game. Hunt played 22 minutes off the bench.
Neither had much of a positive impact while on the court. Besselink had just two rebounds and one assist while turning the ball over twice in 18 minutes. Hunt contributed four points, five rebounds, and one block while committing two turnovers and two fouls in 22 minutes.
Arizona is now without leading scorer Kailyn Gilbert. According to Barnes, Gilbert will likely miss her third straight game when the Wildcats play the Sun Devils.
The reason for Gilbert’s absence is not completely clear. Since she first sat out against California on Jan. 26, several different reasons have been offered. Prior to the telecast of that game, Gilbert told the crew from the Pac-12 Network that she was dealing with back pain. The same night, Barnes told the media in the post-game press conference that Gilbert was held out so as to “not risk injury.” During the game, it appeared that Gilbert was wearing an electronic stimulator device around her midsection, but those devices do not necessarily indicate a debilitating injury.
When Gilbert did not appear against Stanford, Barnes was asked why. The press was told that she was “unavailable.” When specifically asked if it was for an injury, Barnes once again stressed that Gilbert was “unavailable” rather than “injured.”
The reason changed again in the weekly media session held with Barnes on Thursday, Feb. 1. This time, Barnes said that Gilbert was “in protocol.” This phrase is often used by coaches to describe concussion protocol. If that was her intention, it would have been Barnes’ first mention of possible concussion during the previous three weeks.
Gilbert has been on the bench at both games. She was in uniform for the first one and warmed up before the game. She wore sweats and did not warm up against Stanford.
The absence of Gilbert could last for the rest of the season. The team currently has seven available players. Barnes has praised that group of seven, but she realizes that good intentions can only take you so far. To avoid running into issues with player limitations, Barnes has decided to hold open tryouts but players wouldn't be added until next week.
“I don’t want to get to a situation where we don’t meet the qualifications from the Pac-12,” Barnes said. “So, I don’t want to cancel games. I don’t mind going in with seven, but if I could ensure that we’d always have seven, I’d be more comfortable. Because it’s random stuff that happened a month ago, like two players colliding, or a practice player elbowing someone. They get a concussion. They’re out for like two weeks. Just random stuff like that.”
The Wildcats are not ready to give up. They are still above .500 overall and have a NET of 45. Last season, eight teams with NET rankings of 45 or higher got at-large bids. Only two of those eight had to play in the First Four, meaning the rest were firmly in the field. The highest NET to get an at-large bid was No. 61 West Virginia, which Arizona dispatched in the opening round.
Would it be better for Arizona to be one of the 32 teams that get into the new Women’s Basketball Invitational Tournament (WBIT) run by the NCAA? The secondary tournament, which will likely take over some of the prestige of the WNIT, might serve the same purpose the WNIT served for Arizona in 2019 by allowing its young players to win several games, possibly on their home court. Barnes still thinks the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament is what the Wildcats should be reaching for.
“I think it’s so hard when you’ve been to the national championship,” Barnes said. “I think it’s like the bar is high...I’ve never felt that pressure, ‘Oh, you have to get back in the Final Four,’ but I know that, for me, I’m not coaching to not do that...I’m going to find a way to get us better and back to where we should be. I knew this year, we would take a step back...So when I do think about that, we’re going to try and make the tournament. And I think it’s realistic right now. It’s going to be hard. Absolutely. We’d probably be the talk of the country...but we’re also in a really strong conference and we don’t have bad losses. I don’t think we have one bad loss...And so I think that we need to win some games. There’s nine games left. We need to win a majority of them.”
If they are going to reach their goals, the Wildcats can’t let “winnable” games slip away. They did that three times in the Pacific Northwest in January. This time, they get a team they have defeated by 39 points and they get it at home. With UCLA and USC coming next week, there’s very little slack left.
Even if they don’t get to the tournament, though, beating ASU is important for other reasons. When Helena Pueyo arrived in Tucson, the Sun Devils were the dominant team in the state. The fifth-year guard could end her Wildcat career with an 8-2 record against Arizona’s rival. The Spanish guard may not have heard of the Territorial Cup before she came to UA, but it’s important to her now.
“I’m gonna miss it,” Pueyo said. “It’s the kind of game that I really like to play here at Arizona. So, I’m just really excited. I’m just gonna enjoy until the last second.”