Adia Barnes talked with the same chip-on-the-shoulder determination that she had in the years after her hire at Arizona at the Pac-12 Media Day on Tuesday in San Francisco.
She did not sound like a coach who just led the Wildcats to the national championship game six months ago.
Don’t forget Barnes had to prove herself from the start of her playing career, passed over by many programs out of high school. She accepted a spot with Joan Bonvicini’s program because Bonvicini promised Barnes an opportunity to play at the post although she was “only” 5-foot-11.
A chip on her shoulder is made of gold.
“I think that’s the fun part about coaching — proving people wrong,” said Barnes, who in 2016 took over a program at her alma mater that was 14-76 in conference games in the previous five years. “We’ve done it all our life and I’ve done that all my life.”
Arizona was predicted by the conference’s coaches to finish fifth in the preseason poll largely because of the departure of All-American guard Aari McDonald, who is now with the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA as the No. 3 overall pick in the draft.
“I’m telling you guys right now that we’re gonna be a better team (than last year),” Barnes told the media during a press conference with her leaders Sam Thomas and Cate Reese sitting nearby. “A lot of people don’t think so, and I don’t really care.
“People have their own opinion. To me, it matters how you finish. It doesn’t matter how you start. If we listened to all that (pessimism), they (Thomas and Reese) wouldn’t have been here and I wouldn’t have taken the Arizona job.”
Barnes talked about the addition of high-level transfers such as guard Taylor Chavez (Oregon) and forwards Koi Love (Vanderbilt) and Ariyah Copeland (Alabama) making an immediate impact on the program in addition to the return of Thomas, Reese, Shaina Pellington, Helena Pueyo, Lauren Ware, Bendu Yeaney and Madison Conner.
She also mentioned the freshman class that includes guard Anna Gret Asi, center Aaronette Vonleh and forward Gisela Sanchez as being “pretty darn good.”
“Everybody does a little more but it’s what we needed anyways because we were that close (losing to Stanford in the national title game with a missed shot at the buzzer by McDonald),” Barnes said. “The margin of error is very small. We were that close last year but we didn’t win. We had to get better anyways.
“It’s gonna look different but I’m telling you guys right now we’re going to be a better team.”
Although Arizona has an influx of personnel this season, Barnes said her team will play with the same characteristic of the McDonald years.
“You’re going to still see us diving on the floor, running people over getting balls — that’s who we are,” she said. “That’s our identity. So nothing different.”
Reese, a two-time All-Pac-12 choice, brought up the fact that Arizona did not play in the NCAA tournament for 16 years until last year’s breakthrough.
With that experience in tow, Reese and the Wildcats not only know what it takes to advance in March Madness but to also go deep into it.
“As far as expectations from other people, I think that people think now that Aari is gone, we’re not going to be the same team and I disagree with them because we are now able to get players, transfers that are really good,” Reese said. “I think that people believe If they come here, they can do big things. I think that that’s something that Sam and I came here to build.
“So I’m really excited for the season and to see what we can do.”
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District