Evidence that Adia Barnes can turn around Arizona’s program was right in front of the Wildcats last night at McKale Center.
Oregon, only five years removed from an unsuccessful run under Paul Westhead, is ranked No. 6 nationally and has won the Pac-12 regular-season title in consecutive years with Arizona as the opponent.
When Kelly Graves took over the Ducks in 2014-15, Oregon had four consecutive non-winning seasons under Westhead, including a 4-27 season in 2012-13.
“You look at Oregon five years ago they had a couple of thousand fans there,” Barnes said last night after the Ducks outscored her team 19-0 in the fourth quarter to pull away to an 83-54 win in front of 2,517 at McKale Center.
“Now you go in there and they have 10 to 12,000 fans. So I think that they’ve earned that. (Graves) has done a great job with his program. He’s recruited some top talent. … That just shows you where we need to be and the level we have to play at, and the mistakes we can’t make.”
Oregon has achieved consecutive Elite Eight appearances under Graves, who came from Gonzaga, where he built a similarly successful program advancing to the Elite Eight in 2010-11 and making the NCAA tournament six consecutive years upon his departure.
Graves, 56, played at New Mexico after attending junior college in Utah, where he is from. He was with the Lobos in 1985-86, when they traveled to Tucson to play freshman Sean Elliott and the Wildcats. He had four points in the Lobos’ 70-55 loss.
Last night’s venture into McKale Center was much more successful for Graves, who is now 501-212 in his 23rd year of coaching. Graves’ teams the last three years are 3-0 against Arizona at McKale, winning by an average of 18.7 points.
The 19-0 shutdown in the fourth quarter last night caught Graves by surprise although Arizona outside of Aari McDonald (26 points and five assists) was not effective.
“That was a surprise until I looked at the box score; I thought it was in the wrong column,” Graves told the Associated Press. “But that’s the kind of competitors we have.”
Graves has drawn one of the nation’s top players — sophomore forward Satou Sabally — from Germany. She shredded Arizona’s interior defense with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field and also had 10 rebounds.
He went to Alaska to get junior forward Ruthy Hebard, who also dominated the paint with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting and nine rebounds.
Junior guard Sabrina Ionescu, who had 22 points against Arizona while making 6-of-9 from 3-point range, is from Walnut Creek, Calif.
Not one of his players is from Oregon, which means he had to do a hard sell starting three years ago with Hebard and Ionescu to get the Ducks where they are today. His winning background at Gonzaga helped.
He came into Arizona last year and nabbed the state’s top player — Valley Vista guard Taylor Chavez, an ESPN Top 100 recruit who led the Monsoon to consecutive Class 6A state titles.
Developing a winning formula begets recruiting, which begets more wins and deep postseason runs, which begets the more than 7,000 fans Oregon is averaging at home this season. Barnes has mentioned that attracting at least 7,000 fans for games at McKale Center is a realistic goal.
To achieve that success, it will take a coach like Barnes, who has the youth, electric personality and energy to recruit well and drum up support locally.
Graves reportedly is active reaching out to Oregon students to get them involved with the program, a must for Barnes to do at Arizona. The Zona Zoo is practically non-existent at McKale Center for women’s games.
Graves has served as a guest speaker in some of Oregon’s classes, including coaching classes within the Physical Education and Rec Department.
On one side of a document he hands students is a list of core values behind his program. On the other side the “Components of our championship program” is described.
Graves first drafted this blueprint for success in 1987 when he was wrapping up his New Mexico career under coach Gary Colson. One of his major components is “Creating a Family Atmosphere.”
“We build something really special,” Graves told the Oregon Daily Emerald. “You come to our games and you see the fans and they are really into it. I walk around town and they’re like, ‘Hey Coach, love your team,’ and that means a lot. We’ve built something at each school that the university, and the community, and the fans can be proud of, and the kids, the team themselves.”
All indications are Barnes is headed down that same path making the locals proud of her players as individuals and as a team, creating that strong core of belief. That can’t be understated.
The toughest part is the winning and building that culture of championship expectations.
“We’re just not there yet as a team, as a culture, as a program,” Barnes said, “but we will be.”
Arizona has more learning experiences immediately ahead, wrapping up the regular season tomorrow, hosting another highly-ranked team, No. 9 Oregon State, at 3 p.m.