Pac-12 preview: University of Arizona

This is the seventh in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams.

Just when the Arizona program looked to be ascending in 2010-2011 with a winning record, the Wildcats tumbled last year. Losing All-Pac-10 forward Ify Ibekwe proved to be an adjustment, and last season the team went 15-17, including 3-15 in conference play, for twelfth place.

This year might be just as much of a challenge for fifth-year Coach Niya Butts, as three of five of last year’s starters are gone, including the squad’s center. There are nine newcomers, which are a mixture of freshmen and transfers.

Shanita Arnold, last year’s assists leader, and Reiko Thomas graduated. Junior guard Lindsey Fearing transferred to Black Hills State University, and freshman guard Erin Butler transferred to University of the Pacific. Aley Rohde, a 6-foot-5 freshman last season, transferred to UNLV, leaving the Wildcats with no center.

Half of the players on the 14-woman roster are six feet tall and over, but none are over 6-foot-2.

The good news for the Wildcats is their top three scorers – senior guard Davellyn Whyte (17 ppg). junior guard Candice Warthen (11.7 ppg) and junior forward Erica Barnes (10.8 ppg) – are back. Other returnees include reserves Layana White and Cheylene Harper.

Perhaps the most notable transfer is junior guard/forward Lynette Holmes, who comes from Xavier, where she averaged 12 points per game. Alli Gloyd is a junior forward from Mesa Community College, where she was the state’s junior college player of the year last season.

Other transfers include Carissa Crutchfield, a junior from Oklahoma State; Kama Griffitts, a junior from North Idaho College; and Cheshi Poston, a senior forward from Logan College.

The freshmen are forward Shereen Sutherland, from Corona, Calif.; guard Nyre Harris, of Stockton, Calif.; guard Keyahndra Cannon, of San Diego, Calif.; and guard Simone Westbrook of Mesa, Ariz.

Butts says this year’s team is more athletic, and that they’ll be faster and will use pressure defense. Without a center, she and her assistant coaches will have to be very creative.

The Wildcats face UNLV, Cal State Northridge, BYU, UTEP and Texas State, among others, in preseason. They kick off conference play Jan. 4, at Washington State.