Adia Barnes would have hoped to be preparing her team for the Sweet 16 at this time after winning in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament in what she envisioned to be a packed McKale Center.
On this Tuesday afternoon, however, Barnes was not with her team at McKale but on a personal lockdown at her Tucson home with husband (and assistant coach) Salvo Coppa and their 4-year-old son Matteo.
While the concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic claimed her opportunity to coach Arizona into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years, the seriousness of the disease has also made her take every precaution necessary to keep herself and her family safe.
“You know the person at the store with the mask and gloves on? That’s me,” Barnes said. “We stay at home. We see people walking outside and a group of 10 people playing basketball down the street. We know not to do that. I’m afraid this is going to get more serious before it gets better.”
Barnes is well-educated on the development of COVID-19.
Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke entrusted Barnes and football coach Kevin Sumlin to be the athletic department’s representation of the university’s COVID-19 Response Team. Barnes and Sumlin communicate any concerns for coaches and athletes to the team. They are briefed daily on the matters pertaining to the disease and how it might impact the university and athletics.
Barnes also gets updates from Italy, one of the hardest hit countries by COVID-19, through live video conferencing with her husband’s family in that country. Thankfully, Coppa’s family is doing well. He and Barnes met about a decade ago while he was coaching in his native Italy,
“We have a different view of what’s going on because we are communicating with his family, and I can tell you, there is a tremendous amount of concern,” Barnes said. “We are seeing things like police outside of buildings and houses not letting people out. People here don’t have a sense of what it’s like to have a complete lockdown like that.”
Another concern for Barnes in this crisis is the well-being of her players, who are scattered all over the world at their homes. Spain is another hard-hit area of COVID-19 cases. Barnes reports that that Spaniards Lucia Alonso and Helena Pueyo and all the rest of her players are doing fine.
Barnes remains in contact with her players frequently with video-conferencing and phone calls. Add to that calls to recruits, communication with her family and friends, helping her husband take care of schooling responsibilities for Matteo (a pre-kindergarten student) and her obligations to the university as part of the COVID-19 Response Team and Barnes is not having a restful stay at home.
“I feel like I’m more busy now,” Barnes said, managing a laugh. “It can be a lot but you just have to get through it.”
She continues to try to get through how Arizona’s highly successful season “abruptly ended, with so much to look forward to,” she said.
Arizona finished with 24 wins, one shy of the school record. The Wildcats finished ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 poll, the program’s highest final ranking since No. 9 in 1997-98, when Barnes was a senior.
The Wildcats’ attendance of 95,098 (average of 5,944 a game) at McKale Center this season was one of the top 15 in the nation.
Arizona toppled three top 10 teams with all of those wins historically significant. The win over No. 8 UCLA was the first over a top 10 team since 2004. The win at No. 9 Oregon State was the first on the road against a top 10 team. The upset of No. 4 Stanford at McKale was the first over a top 5 team.
The achievements merit Barnes as one of the four finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year. Already a splendid recruiter (she signed Kelsey Plum and Aari McDonald to play at Washington when she was an assistant there), can you imagine her enhanced value with national-coach-of-the-year visibility?
“I’m grateful for the players and coaches we have,” Barnes said. “We are still trying to build this up. We’re coming off a WNIT title and we looked ready to compete in the NCAA tournament. We still have a lot of work to do but it feels like we’re putting it all together with the right players.”
The Wildcats in 2020-21 will have all-conference type of players in Cate Reese and Sam Thomas and depth at nearly every position, especially at guard, so much so that sophomore Bryce Nixon has entered her name into the transfer portal. Two transfers — Shaina Pellington (Oklahoma) and Bendu Yeaney (Indiana) — will be added to the roster. Pellington will be eligible after sitting out this year. It is uncertain yet whether Yeaney will be cleared by the NCAA to play in 2020-21 after she played in only six games last season for Indiana coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon injury the year before.
The greatest unknown: Whether McDonald will forego her senior season to enter the WNBA draft, which is scheduled to take place April 17 with the regular season starting May 15. Both of those dates might be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Is there going to be a WNBA season? That might make Aari’s decision easier,” Barnes said. “I’ve known Aari and her family for a long time. We have a great relationship.
“What I want is her to make the decision based on what’s best for her. I might have my own opinion on what’s best for her, but this is a decision she has to make with her family (and new fiancee).”
McDonald has played two seasons at Arizona and is already the school’s No. 6 career scoring leader with 1,486 points. She has scored in double figures in all 66 of her games with Arizona. She is 751 points shy of Barnes’ school record of 2,237. That’s certainly attainable in one season inasmuch as she broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record last year with 890 points.
McDonald is on the cusp of being a first-team All-American after the Associated Press and the USBWA made her a second-team choice this season. She is a finalist for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and Ann Meyers Drysdale Award for the top shooting guard in the nation. She will be a bonafide national player of the year candidate if she returns.
“Look at all the accolades she’s getting now; it should only get better next year,” Barnes said. “We will be a good program regardless. We can be one of the best in the nation and the Pac-12.
“There’s also unlimited opportunities for Aari in terms of marketing. Sabrina Ionescu returned (to Oregon) and helped herself with that as a national player of the year. Aari is on that same path. But, again, I would never want to make a decision like that for a player. It’s a decision for her and her family and I’ll respect that.”
For now, while isolated, Barnes said she wants to stay in contact with McDonald and all of the players as much as possible via the phone or on her computer with face-timing. She mentioned that at the beginning of the virus outbreak she visited McKale Center, “but now there is hardly anybody that goes there. No one.”
“Everything happened so abruptly at the end of the season, we didn’t get the chance to do exit interviews and have good conversations with the players like we normally do at the end of a season,” Barnes said. “It was more of figuring out all the logistics of the players so they could get home as soon as possible. “
Barnes’ son was playing around her and her husband was caring for him while she was on the phone. Her family there is safe with its self-quarantine. She hopes for the safety and well-being of her extended family and players and coaches, Arizona’s fans, and the world (of which she and her husband travel quite often in search of recruits and also family getaways).
“My hope is we get through this by making all the safety precautions because I know how bad it can get,” Barnes said. “This is serious. I hope people take care of themselves. I’m hoping for the best.”
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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.