Joan Bonvicini, with her wealth of basketball knowledge and her esteemed stature in the game, should be commenting on NCAA tournament games on ESPN.
In a phone interview with Bonvicini on Thursday, the voice of the coach who took Arizona to its only previous Sweet 16 in 1997-98 suggested she agrees that she belongs on ESPN broadcasts during March Madness.
“I was actually in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago and I called the WAC tournament, so I’ve done that for five years. I do men and women, so that’s on ESPN, but it’s like ESPN-Plus or something like that,” Bonvicini said. “I have done only one game for ESPN a few years ago. … I mean, what am I gonna say? I don’t know what to say.”
Ironically, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions Carol Stiff is a fellow Southern Connecticut State alum.
Listen to a Pac-12 Network broadcast with Bonvicini, an Arizona Hall of Famer with the most coaching wins in school history, analyzing a game and the basketball IQ will improve a few notches.
No wonder one of her protégés, Adia Barnes, is making herself and the Arizona program nationally relevant harkening back to the days when Bonvicini coached her and the 1997-98 team to the Sweet 16.
It took Arizona 23 arduous years to get back to that point under Barnes, whose style and team composition is similar to Bonvicini’s back in the day.
With Bonvicini not broadcasting and watching Arizona’s NCAA tournament games at home, she still analyzes the game but does so without objectivity.
“When I’m calling the games, I am pretty mellow,” Bonvicini said. “I could get excited, but you know, I’m really looking at the whole picture.”
She added with a laugh, “Well, when I’m watching Arizona at home, I’m yelling at the TV.”
Barnes and members of the historic 1997-98 team know that yell well.
They also know that Bonvicini would always turn that yell into words of encouragement.
“Joan was a players’ coach had a connection with me a lot like Aari (McDonald) and I, and Cate (Reese) and I, and Sam (Thomas) and I,” said Barnes, who added this year’s team and the team she played on 23 years ago are both “aggressive, blue-collar, scrappy — we’d make it look ugly sometimes, but we played that type of defense. That’s kind of what we’re doing right now.”
Bonvicini also notices plenty of parallels between Arizona’s only two Sweet 16 teams in school history.
“Adia and I had a really good relationship similar to what she has with Aari. She trusted me and I believed in her. She had a lot of respect for me, so I think the other kids did as well,” Bonvicini said.
“We had good chemistry on that team. We had a really good core group. It’s interesting, like Adia, we won the WNIT and that really set the table for everything else. We also beat Northwestern like her team did for the WNIT championship. It’s really sort of crazy.”
Bonvicini, throughout her 36 years of coaching at Long Beach State, Arizona and Seattle, coached with a frank demeanor and gained respect from her players for being open and honest.
Barnes has that same characteristic with her coaching style.
“You can’t demand respect, or trust, you have to earn it, and that’s why the relationship piece is important,” Bonvicini said. “I value myself as a relationship person and I know Adia does too. Aari is clearly her best player. Whoever you’re coaching, you have to have a really good relationship with that person and she does, and that’s something that grows and you earn. That’s how it was with Adia and myself
“This is how I am — Adia says it like it is. She’s not really gonna rip people up publicly. I’m sure, privately she may say stuff, but if the team is playing well, she’ll say it. If they’re not, she’ll say that too. She’s been pretty transparent.”
Bonvicini did not back down with her non-conference scheduling, which impacted how her teams became competitive annually in January and February. She coached Arizona to its first seven NCAA tournament appearances in a span of nine years (from 1996-97 to 2004-05).
The 1997-98 season included a game at Purdue, a holiday tournament in Ruston, La., with matchups against Baylor and Louisiana Tech, and an event in the middle of the conference season at Lubbock, Texas, that included Arizona playing Kansas in one game and Stanford facing Texas Tech in the other.
Arizona stayed close in its game with Louisiana Tech, coached by Hall of Famer Leon Barmore, throughout the game before losing 75-64 on Dec. 30, 1997. Louisiana Tech extended its home winning streak to 39 games with that win and later advanced to the NCAA championship that season. Barmore coached the Bulldogs to nine Final Fours (including eight in a row from 1983 to 1990), five national championship games and the 1988 national title.
His lead assistant in 1997-98 was Kim Mulkey, who has established a Hall of Fame career coaching Baylor.
“I used the philosophy coming from Long Beach State, which did not play in a league that obviously was as good as the Pac-10, to schedule really good non-conference teams,” Bonvicini said. “I really wanted to challenge the team in the non-conference, which now you don’t necessarily need to do because the Pac-12 is so good.”
Arizona was hardened by time it upset Stanford 91-90 on Jan. 12, 1998, at McKale Center on a last-second 19-foot jumper by Reshea Bristol, a redshirt freshman. The win was Arizona’s first in 23 tries against the Cardinal and it snapped a 47-game winning streak in the Pac-10 for Tara VanDerveer’s team.
“It’s a compliment to a team like Stanford that so many teams measure themselves against them,” senior forward Mikko Giordano told The Arizona Daily Star afterward. “But we knew we could play against this team.”
Arizona played tough against UConn in the Sweet 16 that season but a torn ACL that sidelined starting center Marte Alexander during that game was too much to overcome. She exited with 12:16 left in the game at Dayton, Ohio, with Arizona trailing by only three points.
The Wildcats went scoreless in the last five minutes as Geno Auriemma’s team pulled away to a 74-57 win.
“Marte’s injury definitely impacted the result,” Bonvicini said Thursday, “but it was a fun experience going that far. It indicated how far we could take the program.”
Arizona (18-5) is a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament like it was in 1998. The Wildcats finally get another shot at an Elite Eight when they face No. 2 seed Texas A&M (25-2) on Saturday at 5 p.m.. at San Antonio.
The game will be televised by ESPN2 and Bonvicini will be watching from home rather than have her broadcasting mic on — a loss for ESPN and the viewing audience.
She will still analyze the game. That’s a given for a coach with 701 wins in her career, only one of 37 to achieve at least 700 wins.
Joan Bonvicini is part of
She has a keen insight to the game. She spent a day at Texas A&M a couple of years ago visiting the Aggies’ coach, Gary Blair, a longtime coaching friend. She mentioned she got a sense from Blair that coaching in College Station was meaningful because of the fans and community carrying the 12th-player mantra, “which is legitimate. It fuels their teams. It really does.”
“He’s like a good ol’ boy. He’s a big storyteller,” Bonvicini said. “I think it will be a good game. A&M might be more athletic but Arizona’s defense is really good.
“I think, honestly, Arizona could beat just about anybody, but they have to play well. I mean, there are no easy games. Everyone’s good. And this guy’s a good coach. I’ll be watching and I’m sure I’ll do some yelling.”
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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.