Pac-10 preview: the University of Arizona

Prior to the commencement of the 2009-2010 college basketball season, Hoopism will profile various NCAA teams. Today, the ninth installment of the Pac-10 previews: the University of Arizona Wildcats.

A large coaching turnover throughout the NCAA in the spring of 2008 was followed by an exodus of players from those programs throughout the resulting season. No program lost more players than the University of Arizona, where four freshmen and a junior left last spring.

Coach Niya Butts attributed the players quitting to the differences in vision of the program: hers versus theirs. And it’s true that predecessor Joan Bonvicini and Butts have completely opposite coaching styles. But it concerned me that so many left, and I continue to wonder about the future of Arizona basketball.

Besides the five, the Wildcats lost three seniors. A mere five players remain from last year: junior guard Faihza Hill, junior forward Ify Ibekwe, senior guard Ashley Frazier, sophomore guard Reiko Thomas, and sophomore guard Tasha Dickey. Only one genuine recruit from high school is on the Arizona roster this year: Davellyn Whyte of Phoenix. Four of this year’s five other new players are from junior colleges. Sophomore guard Brooke Jackson is from Mesa Community College; junior center Jennifer Kioa comes from Foothill Community College; junior forward Soana Lucet hails from the College of Southern Idaho; and junior forward/center Amanda Pierson is from Seward Community College in Kansas. The final new edition to the team is Shanita Arnold, a junior guard transfer from the University of Arkansas.

It is fantastic that Butts is utilizing so many JC players, as small colleges are often a gold mine of talent. But she would be well-served to balance out that mix with more freshmen, or she will be heavily recruiting every single year.

Arizona finished in a tie for eighth place in the Pac-10 last year, and I definitely saw some sparks of brilliance during the conference tournament in March. Yet, the team has a long way to go, and hopefully Butts knows that the talented Ibekwe can’t put the team on her back every single game.

I have heard rumblings that a few of the Arizona players who are still there are unhappy with the program and the coach. But on the other hand, I watched Ibekwe take great care to attend to a coughing Butts during a press conference last spring.

To be sure, this will be the year of truth for Butts, to see if she might turn the once-elite Wildcat program back around. With so many new players this year, it’s almost like she’s starting all over again. Time will tell.

Arizona won its first exhibition game Thursday against Fort Lewis College, 75-60. They tip off right now in their second pre-season game, against Grand Canyon College.

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