Pac-12 preview: the University of Arizona

This is the fourth in an annual 12-part series previewing the Pac-12 teams for the upcoming season.

Coach Niya Butts’ six-year tenure with the University of Arizona has been full of ups and downs. Perhaps the lowest valley was last season, which saw the Wildcat roster depleted with injuries. Chief among them was second-leading scorer Alli Gloyd’s ACL tear just weeks before the season opener, which put her on the bench for the year.

Arizona ended with an overall record of 5-25, and they were 1-17 in Pac-12 play for last place.

The sting of last season still seems to be on Butts’ mind, as she emphasizes pushing forward this year.

“It’s over. That’s all I want to think about. It’s behind us,” Butt said. “We just want to move forward. Obviously last year needs to serve as a reminder because it’s obviously somewhere you don’t want to go back to. Right now we’re just hoping we can stay injury-free, and right now we’re pretty healthy.”

Gloyd (9.4 points, 6 rebounds per game) is back, which is good for the Wildcats both on and off the court.

“It’s such a relief,” Butts said. “Practice is a bit louder. She talks on defense and talks on offense. She’s constantly communicating with our teammates on the sidelines letting them know what she sees. That’s something you want from one of your leaders.”

Last year’s top scorer, senior guard Candice Warthen (11.1 points per game) is back, as are two other starters: LaBrittney Jones (7.4 points, 5.8 rebounds per game) and Breanna Workman (6.7 points, 4 rebounds per game), both sophomore forwards. Other key returnees are junior guard Keyahndra Cannon and redshirt freshman Dejza James, who also sat out last season injured.

Though it wasn’t the ideal situation, Butts said Jones and Workman learned and grew from getting a lot of minutes last year as newbies. They also became leaders.

“It was valuable,” Butts said. “When you’re talking about a kid getting 20, 30, or 40 minutes a game for a freshman that’s now a sophomore, that’s basically the level of a junior as far as her experience on the court. That has served us really well, especially during the early stages of summer workouts, now going into fall practice. We feel really good about our leadership.”

The Wildcats will need it, as they lost five players from last year, including starters Kama Griffitts and Carissa Crutchfield. The seven newcomers this season may help fill the void.

The most heralded recruit is guard Taryn Griffey – the daughter of baseball great Ken Griffey. She was ranked 86th in her class and 21st at her position by ESPN. A year ago this month she injured her knee and was forced to miss her senior year, after missing her junior season with injury as well. Griffey won’t be ready to play immediately, but the goal is for her to suit up by the time Pac-12 play begins.

“The one thing we want to do is make sure we’re really careful with her,” Butts said. “Even it was a close timeline for us, we would probably push it back just to be safe. We want to be extra careful and give her body time to heal and recover.”

Three of the newcomers are junior transfers – all guards. Lauren Evans transferred from Virginia Tech, where she made 28 starts as a freshman. Chy Cunningham and Malena Washington came from Paris Junior College and Tyler Junior College, respectively.

Rounding out the freshman class are three guards: JaLea Bennett, a standout sharp-shooter from Texas; Cherice Harris, who played for nationally-ranked Etiwanda High School; and Charise Holloway, a high-scorer from St. Mary’s High School in Northern California.

The freshmen are still getting used to the pace of the college game.

“They’re very talented. We still have to light fires under them every now and then, but the talent is definitely there,” Butts said. “We just have to work on getting them to be more consistent.”

The point guard position starter hasn’t yet been decided.

“It’s up for grabs,” Butts said. “Obviously Candice Warthen is a returner so she’ll be playing on the ball a lot, but we want to move her off the ball a little bit so that it opens up that spot for some of the young ones to get in there. Washington and Harris are possibilities to fill that spot, but it all depends on how they come out and perform in practice.”

The floor leader position will be especially crucial this year. Though long on guards, the Wildcats have only four forwards, and are short on size. Speed will have to be the name of their game.

Among their pre-conference opponents are Texas Tech, Wake Forest, UAB and UT Martin. Arizona opens Pac-12 play at home Jan. 3, against Washington State.