Pac-10 preview: The Arizona schools

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Next up: the Arizona schools of the Pacific 10 Conference.

We have both the veteran and the newcomer in Arizona this year.

At Arizona State University in Tempe, there is head Coach Charli Turner Thorne. Going into her thirteenth season with the Sun Devils, she is as much known for her tough offense-minded teams that usually get an NCAA tournament invitation as she is for her short skirts and high heels.

Niya Butts has taken over the program at the University of Arizona, replacing fired head coach Joan Bonvicini. Butts is not new to coaching, having spent five years as assistant coach at the University of Kentucky, and short stints at Michigan State and Tennessee Tech. But this is the former Lady Vol’s first head coaching position.

The contrasts continue from there. In fact, both teams mirror their respective coaches a bit.

ASU is loaded with seniors – six, to be exact – including returning starters Briann January, Lauren Lacey and Sybil Dosty. They have four freshmen and two transfer players – one of which is Kali Bennett, formerly of the University of Washington, who won’t play this year due to NCAA transfer rules. The Devils have dealt with that before, as Dosty transferred to the school in 2006 after one year at the University of Tennessee.

The Wildcats boast four returning starters, but only three seniors. Five freshmen come in to the program, as does one player from Turkey and another from a junior college. Four of the freshmen hail from the Los Angeles area, so I will take a special interest in Arizona this year, as I’ve seen most of those young women play high school ball.

Thorne’s teams are known for their consistency. Last year her squad averaged 65.2 points per game, finished third in the Pac-10 conference and went to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing to Duke. The year before, the Devils went to the Elite Eight. USA Today picked ASU as one of their top 16 teams of the season today.

Butts, who has two championship rings from her Vol days, has had a decent record as assistant at Kentucky under former Tennessee assistant coach Mickie DeMoss. Butts helped UK to three WNIT appearances and one NCAA tournament berth. Butts also helped MSU to an NCAA berth the year she was there.

The ASU player to watch this year is Briann January, who won the Pac-10’s first defensive player of the year award last year. She takes the initiative and is explosive, which is a lethal combination.

Arizona players I’ll be watching are Reiko Thomas and Ashley Frazier. Thomas, a shooting guard, has the most natural talent of a high school guard that I’ve ever seen. She averaged 16.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game last year, and was the most valuable player of all of the tournaments her team participated in last year. She was named player of the city of Los Angeles last spring.

Frazier, from South Plains College in Texas, helped her team advance in its regional tournament both years she was there. Arizona coaches say she has “tremendous energy.” After seeing what Shannon Bobbitt did for Tennessee, I never overlook junior college players anymore.

The Sun Devils begin their season next month by playing in the WNIT tournament, followed by the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. On Dec. 14 is the exciting re-match of the 2007 NCAA second round game against UC-Riverside, which ASU won after coming from behind; that game will be in Tempe this time.

In about a month, Arizona will head to a tournament at the University of Hawaii, where Thomas will face a former teammate. Major opponents for the Wildcats before Pac-10 play begins Jan. 2 include Texas A&M, Long Beach State and UC-Riverside.

I wish both teams luck this year, but because of the Tennessee and California connections on Arizona’s team, I’ll have to pull for them. I love up-and-comers, anyway.