Pac-12 preview: the University of Arizona

This is the second in an annual season preview series of the Pac-12 teams.

The Arizona Wildcats are in some familiar hands now – and big-time hands, at that.

When Adia Barnes took the reins of the program in the spring, the 1998 graduate did so as Arizona’s all-time leading scorer, who became a WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm. Barnes spent the last five years as assistant coach at the University of Washington, where she helped guide the team to the school’s first Final Four appearance last April.

Similar to the way she and the Husky staff rebuilt that program, Barnes finds herself with the same task at her alma mater. She and her staff hit the ground running this summer, and have been hard at work ever since. The Wildcats lost only three reserve players to graduation coming into the year, and have added just two freshmen.

Head coach Adia Barnes conducts a recent practice at the University of Arizona. Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics.
Head coach Adia Barnes conducts a recent practice at the University of Arizona. Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics.

But over the last eight years, former coach Niya Butts amassed a 101-149 record in Tucson, including going 3-15 in Pac-12 play in 2015-2016. It was a far cry from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when the Wildcats made NCAA Tournament appearances. The biggest changes Barnes has been working to instill since taking over are expectations and creating a winning culture.

“Players get used to losing, and we’re working to get that out of them,” Barnes said. “It’s not easy creating a new culture.”

Athletes are also learning every single day.

“My systems are completely different than what they had before,” Barnes said. “They are getting used to going fast and going hard.”

Top scoring senior forward LaBrittney Jones (12.6 points, 5.9 rebounds per game) returns, as does fellow starters Malena Washington (10.8 points per game) and JaLea Bennett (5.7 points per game), both junior guards; and senior forward Breanna Workman (6.5 points, 4.8 rebounds per game). Other bright spots are redshirt sophomore Taryn Griffey (7.6 points per game); Charise Holloway (6.6 points per game), a junior guard; and senior forward Dejza James (5.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game).

In addition to coaching and culture-building, Barnes and her assistants are also working hard to recruit. Though it’s been a lot of leg work, she said she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“It’s so special to be here,” Barnes said. “I chose Arizona twice!”

“I would not have accepted this job if I didn’t feel like I could build a championship program. (Washington coach) Mike Neighbors left me so well-prepared to be a head coach.”

Barnes said Tucson still feels like home.

“I love this place. This is where it all started for me. I want to bring this program back to where it belongs. This University has everything, and this is my dream job!”

Highlights on the Wildcat’s preconference schedule include New Mexico State, San Diego and Kansas in December. They begin conference play Dec. 29 at home, as they take on California.