The 15-year wait should come to an end this season.
It’s NCAA tournament appearance or bust for Adia Barnes and her Arizona women’s basketball team, especially with Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Aari McDonald and seven others returning — including the entire starting lineup — from last year’s WNIT title team. The Wildcats have not advanced to the NCAA tournament since the 2004-05 season.
“I know that the NIT, like we weren’t satisfied, so just winning that will make myself and my teammates hungrier for this year, and we’re hoping for better things,” said McDonald, who is to Barnes what Sean Elliott was to Lute Olson when Olson built the men’s program into a power.
McDonald, Tee Tee Starks and Barnes took part in Monday’s Pac-12 Media Day. Barnes mentioned she does not pay attention to the expectations placed on her developing program, but she did say after the WNIT championship over Northwestern in April that her program is in position now to make the NCAA tournament after experiencing the postseason for the first time since the 2011 WNIT.
“I’m not saying every day we need to make the tournament. That’s what we want and that’s the ultimate goal, but I believe in getting 1 percent better every day,” she said Monday.
“I don’t feel like there’s pressure. I think the climb is the fun part. I think there’s a lot more pressure when you’re No. 1 and you have to finish No. 1.”
The Wildcats, who finished 24-13 last year, were picked to finish in sixth place in the preseason Pac-12 coaches poll Monday. It is the highest spot for the Wildcats since the 2005-06 preseason poll.
“Yeah, we’re picked sixth, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me because we’ve got to go out and play and do better,” Barnes said.
Barnes, the best player in school history in her fourth season as head coach with a 44-54 record, told reporters Monday that coaching women’s basketball particularly at her alma mater is a “blessing.”
“There’s nothing to take for granted because one day I probably will get fired. Everybody gets fired in this profession,” she said.
Not quite. Not her. In fact, Arizona might be hard-pressed to keep her around if she continues this upswing of the basketball program. In June, she signed a contract extension through the 2023-24 season but nothing is guaranteed.
The Wildcats return 92 percent of their scoring, led by McDonald, an All-American point guard who led the Pac-12 with 24.1 points per game, the third highest average in the nation.
Arizona’s average attendance last year after packing McKale Center for the WNIT title game against Northwestern was 3,675, almost doubling the average from the previous season (1,933).
“I just give Adia so much credit,” said UCLA coach Cori Close. “Not only did she get her team playing their best basketball in March, but she rallied an entire community to get behind that team in a really special way. We all need to celebrate that because that is growing our game and growing enthusiasm for the journey of women’s basketball.”
Arizona’s Adia Barnes: “There were two teams that were happy at the end of last season — us and Baylor. That’s a pretty great situation to be in.” pic.twitter.com/0t70aBPmPf
More than 46,000 fans attended Arizona’s six WNIT home games. Barnes and the Wildcats set their program record for attendance with 10,135 fans in the semifinal win over TCU before eclipsing that with 14,644 against Northwestern. That is also a Pac-12 attendance record.
Barnes encouraged the fans to attend through social media posts, including offering a fan a date with her husband, Salvo Coppa, an assistant coach, as a promotion to sell tickets.
“I think one of the most rewarding things was seeing how the city just gravitated towards it. They were hungry for excitement with women’s basketball, and the crowd just grew every single game,” Barnes said. “It was fun. We weren’t focused on the crowd. People were like, ‘Oh, you were marketing. You were doing this and that.’ No, I was having fun and it doesn’t take a lot to tweet, so thank goodness for social media and you guys because it was easy.”
In addition to McDonald and Starks, the Wildcats return sophomore forward Cate Reese (an All-Pac-12 candidate), junior Sam Thomas and seniors Lucia Alonso and Dominique McBryde. The seven newcomers include Penn State graduate transfer guard Amari Carter, who scored 966 points in her three years with the Nittany Lions. She has made 113 three-pointers.
The Wildcats also have an international flavor with their incoming recruits with standouts such as Latvian guard Mara Mote, Turkish center Sevval Gul, Spanish guard Helena Pueyo, and Icelander center Birna Benonysdottir.
Rarely, if ever, has an Arizona roster looked as promising as this one.
“It’s a big cultural transition for a lot of those players, but the returners have to be great right away,” Barnes said. “That’s their job is to be role models, and their job is to bring the freshmen along. We have seven new players. There is a little bit of language barrier, but I think that’s what makes it so special.
“We’re a special group with a lot of different people, and I think that makes them culturally more diverse and more well-rounded.”
Arizona opens the 2019-20 season on Nov. 5 when it hosts North Dakota. The Wildcats host Eastern New Mexico in an exhibition game Oct. 27.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.