While her team had the word “CULTURE” in bold letters on the front of their warmup shirts last night, Adia Barnes wore a sense of pride.
After Arizona defeated ASU 59-53 last night in front of a regular-season record crowd of 10,160 at McKale Center — achieving its first sweep of the Sun Devils since 1999-2000 — Barnes addressed the media and mentioned the word “culture” four times in about a minute.
“We are doing things the right way. The culture has changed.”
“What shirt did we have on? We had ‘Culture.’ That means everything to me. It’s very important. And it’s everything.”
“You don’t win games without culture because we don’t have the talent to do that. We don’t have five McDonald’s All-Americans.”
“We value those little things, that chemistry, that culture, that hard work, getting better, improving the skill development … and then like now, as we are getting better, you recruit better.”
Top Five Attendance Games ASU-UA Rivalry
2019-20 — at Arizona (10,160)
2000-01 — at ASU (5,379)
1999-2000 — at ASU (5,271)
2018-19 — at Arizona (5,006)
2010-11 — at ASU (4,912)
The culture Barnes has developed at Arizona in her four years is one that would be the talk of the nation if women’s basketball had College GameDay or an entire section on SportsCenter devoted to Top 25 women’s games.
That may come in time if the development of women’s basketball over the last two decades is any indication.
Twenty-five years ago, in Barnes’ freshman season of 1994-95, Arizona billed its game against ASU at McKale Center as “Break the Record Night.” The Wildcats tried to surpass the previous attendance record of 4,111 set in 1993 against the Sun Devils. Despite the marketing effort only 3,210 showed up to watch Barnes score 31 points and pull down 18 rebounds in the 79-71 win.
In defense of Joan Bonvicini, Arizona’s coach at that time, she did not have the use of social media that Barnes has today. Barnes did her talking at the time on the court. Now, she knows how to communicate to the public to spur interest.
“It’s not that I am cocky or anything,” she told me then (I was the beat reporter for The Arizona Daily Star). “Talking just pumps me up. I say things like, ‘Get in there,’ and when the shot goes in, I might say something like, ‘Plus the foul,’ or something like that.”
Teammate Brenda Pantoja, sitting next to Barnes, chimed in: “Nah, she says things like, ‘You can’t guard me,’ and, ‘In your face.'”
“You’re not supposed to be telling them (reporters) that,” Barnes said with a laugh.
Barnes has brought that spunk and spontaneity to her position as Arizona’s head coach and the Wildcats and their fans are feeding off it similar to the frenzy Lute Olson created with the men’s program when he began from 1983-86.
Many fans say with pride that they were there when Olson went through Phase I, Phase II and Phase III — Olson actually billed it that way — to get the Wildcats on the national map of college basketball. The phases:
— First, establish the program by building a winning culture (that word again) and the belief that championships can be won.
— Second, recruit the players to manufacture a winning product that can make Arizona grow from the depths of college basketball to become one of the top teams in the West.
— And third, become a nationally elite program viewed as a consistent challenger for the NCAA tournament and a deep run to the Final Four and a championship.
Barnes’ program is following that same path.
The winning culture is being established in Barnes’ fourth season. After last night’s win, Arizona is bound to be in the Top 15 in the nation, its highest AP Top 25 rating since 1999-2000, when the Wildcats reached No. 14. They will be ranked for the 10th straight week, their longest appearance stretch since the program was ranked 15 times in 2002-03.
In terms of recruiting and adding quality personnel, Barnes brought All-American guard Aari McDonald with her from Washington, she recruited the program’s first McDonald’s All-American (Cate Reese) and has lured transfers who are difference-makers like Tee Tee Starks (Iowa State), Dominique McBryde (Purdue) and Amari Carter (Penn State). Another potential transfer — Destiny Pitts, formerly of Minnesota — was in attendance at last night’s game.
Here’s a little bit more on the “big recruit” Arizona hosted during the ASU game: https://t.co/6WTfno7n81
“We have a big recruit here right now so hopefully she loves (the big crowd),” Barnes said. “We’re recruiting well. This (large crowd) does matter. To be third in attendance in the Pac-12 and have a game like this, a regular season game … it isn’t like a playoff game, with 10,160 people. That speaks volumes about this city and basketball, women’s basketball. How many women’s sports can draw fans like this? They don’t.
“I think it matters. Having players nationally see this kind of venue. People want to play in front of crowds. You do. It’s more fun. I’ve done that. It’s scary at first but then it’s awesome. It just creates something special. This will help us recruit, for sure.”
Barnes mentioned the large crowds can also help Arizona host in the NCAA tournament. The top 16 seeds are hosts in the first and second rounds. Imagine Arizona getting that boost with sellout crowds in those rounds, propelling them to the Sweet 16 annually. That would feed into the last phase of Olson’s model of success (becoming nationally prominent) and fulfill the winning culture Barnes has created with her players and fans.
Commenting about last night’s victory, McDonald said, “Definitely momentum, motivation, having the right direction, everybody positive, everybody feeling confident. We’re ready.”
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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.