Last week, I came across Arizona women’s basketball media representative Adam Gonzales at the Tucson Sugar Skulls’ inaugural game at the Tucson Arena, where he helped the Sugar Skulls’ PR man, Jay Gonzales, his father.
I remarked to Adam that it would be nice to have the Wildcats host some games at McKale Center in the WNIT in front of some big crowds, especially with the men’s season over.
His response: Arizona is still thinking NCAA tournament.
Well, okay then.
The hope is real.
What’s keeping that real is the Pac-12 being the toughest conference in the nation with five teams ranked in the top 35 in the latest RPI ratings. Arizona (18-13) passed the eye test (especially late in the season) against those five teams — No. 4 Stanford, No. 5 Oregon, No. 23 ASU, No. 24 Oregon State and No. 35 UCLA — despite going 1-8 against those teams.
Adia Barnes‘ team beat ASU and took Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA down to the last possession. The Wildcats felt they should have defeated the Cardinal at Maples Pavilion. They lost to the Beavers in overtime in the last regular season game and took the Bruins to triple-overtime before losing. Both of those games were at McKale.
The other two Pac-12 teams rated higher than Arizona (which is at No. 80) are No. 41 Cal and No. 53 USC. The Wildcats should have swept the Golden Bears (save for some suspect officiating in Berkeley after the Wildcats led by 20 points in the third quarter) and they convincingly beat USC twice (routing the Trojans by 28 points in the Pac-12 tournament).
The Pac-12 deserves more than five teams in the NCAA tournament because of its strength and Arizona certainly belongs as the sixth team from the conference.
The women’s NCAA tournament selection show is Monday at 4 p.m., Tucson time.
Aari McDonald is Barnes’ Sean Elliott
The All-American player-of-the-year type star who helped put the Arizona men’s program on the elite level nationally for Lute Olson was Sean Elliott. The same kind of player who can get that done for Barnes is Aari McDonald, who as a sophomore is making a claim to be the best Wildcat to put on the uniform.
By the time McDonald’s Arizona career ends in 2020, she could be a national player of the year and first-team All-American who can lead the Wildcats deep into the NCAA tournament. Judging from her accomplishments already, chances are that is likely to happen.
BIG time bucket getter pic.twitter.com/R10CRk8soF
McDonald is the Arizona single-season scoring record holder with 774 points, which also ranks seventh in Pac-12 history. Her 39 points against Loyola Marymount on Nov. 13 tied the school record and she is the only player in program history with eight 30-point games.
To wit: Barnes had a hand in recruiting the only two players in Pac-12 history with at least 750 points and 130 assists in a season — McDonald this year and former Washington All-American Kelsey Plum. In the long run, could the hire of Barnes equate to the hiring of Olson as the best in Arizona history?
Austin Nehls completes successful college career as team player
Former Catalina Foothills standout Austin Nehls, who went on to play for a college prep school before excelling at Central Connecticut State and transferring to Ball State, completed his college career Thursday when Ball State lost in the MAC quarterfinals to Bowling Green.
Nehls, son of former Arizona sharpshooting guard Joe Nehls, unfortunately played only one minute in that game for James Whitford, the Ball State coach who was once a lead assistant under Sean Miller at Arizona.
Arriving at Ball State this year as a graduate transfer from Central Connecticut State, Austin was much like his father shooting from the perimeter. He made 67 3-point shots and scored more than 1,000 points in his four years in New Britain, Conn.
Nehls told the Ball State Daily that he transferred to play for the Cardinals because Muncie, Ind., was more of a traditional college town whereas pro sports were more of a focus at Hartford, Conn., which is near New Britain.
“Muncie is all Ball State, and it’s really cool to be in that atmosphere,” Nehls said. “At Central Connecticut State, we maybe had 1,000 people at our games. Here we got four times that. It’s been really cool to play in front of a wider audience.”
Whitford lauded Nehls as a being a “great teammate.”
“He’s only been here for a year, but when I hear his name I think of a great teammate,” Whitford said. “He didn’t come to Ball State saying what can Ball State do for me. He came to Ball State saying what he could do for Ball State.”
He only averaged 13 minutes per game, making 18 shots from 3-point range, helping him to his 72 points on the season.
“It’s really easy for that guy at the end of the bench to say, ‘Well I’ve scored 1,000 points,’ and not bring a great attitude every day,” Whitford said. “However, Austin has given his best for five minutes or 20 minutes. He’s all in.”
Best local baseball player is at Bisbee?
Could there be a better player than Bisbee senior Eduardo Vasquez locally or even in the state? He’s hard to top. This is what Vasquez has done through 10 games this season:
— Started three games going a combined 16 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run. The right-handed senior has 22 strikeouts and seven walks.
— He is batting .581 (18 hits in 31 at-bats) with four triples and 16 RBIs (which ranks fourth in the state).
— He is successful in all six of his stolen base attempts.
The scouts may question his size (5-foot-6 and 140 pounds) but there is no doubting his ability. In his four-year varsity career the reigning All Sports Tucson 2A Player of the Year is batting .492, and on the mound, he is 17-3 in 22 starts with an ERA of only 0.92 with 167 strikeouts and 45 walks in 120 innings. That’s legendary status.
Another young talent from southeastern Arizona
Buena sophomore shortstop/pitcher Jazmyn Gillian is one to keep an eye on as her career progresses.
In her first year at the varsity level, she currently leads the state in all classifications with a .947 batting average — with 18 hits in 19 at-bats. Those hits aren’t Texas Leaguers either. Her slugging percentage of 2.000 ranks second in the state. Out of her 18 hits, 14 are either doubles (11) or home runs (three).
She also tops the state with a .960 on-base percentage. She has built these numbers through nine games.
Derrick Williams comes to realization in Germany
Derrick Williams was a No. 2 selection in the 2011 NBA draft, a Pac-10 Player of the Year for Miller’s Elite Eight team that season. That should be the best thing that happened to him in what promised to be a successful NBA career.
But Williams became known as a power forward in a small forward’s body, and couldn’t quite make the jump to the NBA with sustained success in parts of seven seasons in the league.
The best thing that happened to me is being here in Munich .. Europe has been amazing and it couldn’t have been better timing. It’s not about what you want but what is necessary
Now thriving in Germany, Williams, 27, believes “the best thing that happened to me is being here in Munich.”
He tweeted that Friday despite having only started two out of the 25 games he’s played with Bayern Munich of the Euroleague. He is averaging 13.9 points and 4.3 rebounds a game while playing 26.8 minutes a game.
He played in two games last season with the Los Angeles Lakers following his season in China.
“Europe has been amazing and it couldn’t have been better timing,” Williams tweeted. “It’s not about what you want but what is necessary.”
Nick Johnson, another Pac-12 Player of the Year at Arizona, used his season with Bayern Munich in 2016-17 to impress NBA teams to return to the G-League.
Johnson, who has not played in the NBA since his rookie season in 2014-15, led the Austin Spurs to the G-League title last year and is one of the top players for the Bucks’ affiliate, the Wisconsin Herd, averaging 10.1 points and a team-best 5.9 assists per game.
Ironic isn’t it that Johnson is playing in Wisconsin after he and the Wildcats were eliminated in the 2014 Elite Eight by the despised Badgers?