This is the tenth of a 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.
by Daniel Uribe
The Arizona Wildcats have seen consistent progress in the last few years towards making a home in top half of the former Pac-10 Conference. The question is, will that progress stall this year in the wake of the loss of three starters, or will the ‘Cats find a way to win?
Coming off her best record during her tenure (21-12, 10-8 Pac-10), fourth-year head Coach Niya Butts is looking to continue her team’s upward ascent, but must make up for the loss of one of the best players in program history: Ify Ibekwe. The Los Angeles native was a three-time All-Pac-10 honoree and defensive player of the year, and averaged nearly a double-double (16.1 ppg, 9.8 rpg). Along with Ibekwe, the team lost starters Brooke Jackson (7.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and Soana Lucet (12.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg).
But the cupboard is not completely bare, as the Wildcats return one of the most experienced back courts in the conference, headed by last year’s second-leading scorer, junior guard Davellyn White (15.8 ppg). She will be joined by fellow returning starter, senior guard Shanita Arnold (7.0 ppg, 4.9 apg), who was second in the conference in assists; and senior guard Reiko Thomas (3.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg) who will be expected to pick up her offensive production. Also returning are sophomore forward Erica Barnes (5.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and sophomore guard Candice Warthen (4.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg).
Regarding the loss of offense, Butts mentioned the following last week during Media Day: “We’re not going to ask Davellyn to go out and score thirty, but if she wants to she’s welcome to it, but it’s going to have to be each player individually stepping up, maybe a couple more points here, a couple more rebounds there. Again, we’re looking for our defense to create some of our offense for us, which is why we changed it up a little bit.”
Butts will also have the challenge of incorporating six newcomers into the fold. They are led by true freshman Aley Rohde, a 6-foot-5 center out of Cave Creek, Ariz. Rohde may be a key to the Wildcats’ success, as she provides size that will be hard to match by any teams in the conference. Erin Butler is a 5-foot-11 guard out of Mission Viejo, Calif., and 5-foot-8 guard Layana White hails from Lancaster, Calif.
“Aley is going to be a key asset for us,” Butts said. “Layana White plays extremely hard. Sometimes we’ll find her out of position, but she goes so hard that she makes up for that. She’s out there working. Erin Butler is also going to provide some outside shooting for us.”
Butts has never been shy about looking towards junior college players to help her reload and rebuild the Wildcats, and this year she has continued that trend with a new trio. They are: 5-foot-8 junior guard Lindsey Fearing, from Cheyenne, Wyo.; 6-foot-2 junior forward Cheylene Harper from Asheville, N.C.; and 6-foot-2 junior foward Cheshi Poston from Chicago, Ill. Butts is optimistic about all of these players and has high expectations.
“Poston’s really long, really athletic. When the light comes on for her, it’s going to mean trouble for a lot of people. She’s a really good player in transition, can rebound the ball,” Butt said.
“Cheylene Harper – she is really physical. She’s going to add some toughness to our team, I believe. We just have to figure out ways to incorporate everybody into what we’re doing.”
“Lindsey Fearing – she’s a great outside shooter. We’re penetrating and kicking that ball, we expect her to knock that thing down, and she knows she has a green light. Hopefully we’ll see a lot of those shots going up and in. I think overall everybody brings something, and I think they bring enough so you’re going to see them bring a little bit of everything.”
One concern for the Wildcats is the strength of the pre-season schedule, as the strongest non-conference opponents are Syracuse and BYU, who they will face in a tournament in Hawaii. Last year, a lack of wins versus top teams may have been the difference maker for the post-season, relegating the Wildcats to the WNIT, where they lost in the first round to Utah State. The challenge to reach the next level and the NCAA tournament may be garnering enough wins with the strength of schedule where it is.
“That trip [to Hawaii] will tell us where we are as a team before we start conference play,” Butts said.
Arizona will open the regular season at Georgia Southern on Nov. 11.
Daniel Uribe is a Los Angeles native and a freelance writer