December 9, 2022 

Arizona is a powerhouse in progress

Early season 77-50 home loss to Kansas exploits 'glaring' areas for improvement

Arizona has cemented its spot as a national power, coming off its 2021 appearance in the national championship game, four straight 20-win seasons, the recruiting prowess and profile of head coach Adia Barnes and the transformation of the McKale Center in Tucson into one of the most raucous, spirited home courts in the sport.

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But in a year where Stanford looks positioned to rule the Pac-12 again, where untraditional powers such as Utah and Washington State are emerging and teams such as UCLA and Oregon are looking to reclaim their status as title threats, the Wildcats find themselves surrounded, in a sense, by programs who want at least a share of what they have built. And likely more.

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Arizona is ranked No. 12 in the latest AP poll sporting an impressive 7-0 record headed into Thursday night’s home game against unbeaten Kansas. But it was not a good night for the ‘Cats, as they fell hard, 77-50 at the McKale Center, ending a run of 23 straight non-conference wins.

The loss brought into focus the unknowns about Arizona. Kansas was their first game against a major non-conference opponent. Their strength of schedule to start the week was 309, according to Real Time RPI. Arizona has played five home games, but have only left the state twice, to go to San Diego for a tournament and New Mexico.

“They came in here and manhandled us,” Barnes said after the game to the Tucson Daily Star. “They had a really good game plan. They executed, they made it really hard for us to do a lot of good things. They outplayed us and every sense of the way they outmuscled us inside. … I think we got punched in the face and we were on our heels and just never could quite respond. … We have to get better, and we’re going to get better. But this was a wake up call and I think probably it’s probably what we needed. Because we have not arrived and there were glaring things that we did we do every day in practice they really were exploited in the game.”

Senior forward Esmery Martinez pulls up for a jump shot against two Kansas defenders during a game on Dec. 8, 2022. (Photo Credit / Arizona Athletics)

Arizona will play a second major-conference opponent on December 18 in Dallas in their first big road challenge of the season against Baylor in Dallas as part of the Coast-to-Coast challenge.

“We have a lot of areas we need to improve,” Barnes said before the Kansas game.

Barnes, whose team has won by a margin of more than 30 points a game before Thursday, said she was looking forward to assessing her team in these next two games, first against the Jayhawks.

She couldn’t have liked what she saw. Especially when she knows what’s looming.

The turn-of-the-calendar stretch looks like a succession of barometer games, with Arizona State (at home), a road trip to Cal and then Stanford, followed by a home set against the Oregon schools and then a difficult mountain trip to Colorado and then Utah.

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Whatever the Wildcats might not know about themselves yet, they will surely know by mid-January.
“This is not going to be an easy month,” Barnes said. “Win or lose, we are going to be better for it.”
To this point, Adia Barnes knows she has a team that is willing to share the scoring load – with eight players averaging at least 7.0 points a game and five in double-figures.

“By far, this is the best offensive team we’ve had,” Barnes said. “We can score at a high level, with a lot of different options. We are shooting the ball the best we have.”

Barnes watched her team score nearly at will, the Wildcats ranking fifth nationally in scoring offense at 88.1 points a game, before being held to 50 points against Kansas. She knows she has experience in fifth-year seniors Shaina Pellington, the team’s leading scorer to this point, and Cate Reese and senior guard Helena Pueyo.

She knows she has high-impact transfers in Jade Loville (from Arizona State) and Esmery Martinez (West Virginia), who are combining to average more than 26 points a game and are “really helping us improve,” Barnes said.

She knows she has a pair of talented freshmen in Kailyn Gilbert and Maya Nnaji.

And she knows that her team can pressure the ball, collecting 98 steals in seven games and forcing 22.3 turnovers a game.

But upping the degree of difficulty will truly define Arizona heading into what will likely be a brutal Pac-12 season. Barnes doesn’t see her team building a gaudy record only to stumble coming into conference play.

“I’ve seen that happen before with teams, but I don’t think we are in that boat,” Barnes said. “We played in front of 6,000 people in New Mexico. We played a good San Diego State team. We’ve never been shell-shocked going into conference (play). We have played the right teams and we need that experience to be successful.”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as and She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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