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Pac-12 preview: the University of Arizona

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

Last year the work began in earnest for first-year coach Adia Barnes, as she took the reins of a program that won a combined seven conference games in the previous three seasons; had last been to the NCAA Tournament in 2005, and whose most recent postseason action was the 2011 WNIT.

The 2016-2017 Wildcats played with more energy and inspiration than they had in years, but they ended with a 14-16 overall record and were 5-13 in Pac-12 play, for an eleventh-place finish. Now the real work begins, as seven new players will hit the court this season and try to create the chemistry that Barnes has been laying the groundwork for with culture-building.

Only three athletes return: senior guard JaLea Bennett (6.9 points per game), junior forward Destiny Graham (3.8 points, 3.2 rebounds per game) and sophomore guard Lucia Alonso (5.3 points, 2.4 assists per game). Five players graduated last year, three left the program and one – Taryn Griffey – retired for medical reasons. Graham and Alonso are the only two returning starters.

The lone senior is forward Kat Wright, a transfer from Florida Atlantic University who sat out last season with injury. She is a three-point specialist that Arizona can use, as they have not been known as a perimeter team. The freshman class includes guards Sammy Fatkin, Marlee Kyles and Alisson Reese and forwards Sam Thomas and Kianna Barkoff. Junior guard Lindsey Malecha also joins the team.

Three transfer players are practicing but not playing this season as per NCAA transfer rules: Tee Tee Starks from Iowa State, Dominique McBryde from Purdue and Aarion McDonald from Washington.

The team’s future also looks bright because Barnes has signed what is currently the No. 2 recruiting class. But the Wildcats have to get through this season first, and it will be challenging with so many newcomers. Barnes said this season feels like another year one.

“It does in a lot of ways because you have to teach so many things, like you did in the first year,” she said. “The first year is hard for the players. You didn’t recruit them and they’re adjusting, so I was very sensitive to that.”

Barnes said building program and team culture is her most important task.

“I just want to be known as a place with tremendous culture,” she said. “We’re starting to build a legacy, and I think it started with the culture with us. Having three returning players has been valuable with so many newcomers.”

“Culture for me is everything, and it doesn’t change in a year. It takes time, but it’s really evident this year….it is night and day. It’s refreshing and players have really bought in, and it’s a really big piece of the process.”

Bennett said she has noticed team members have become closer.

“Since I’ve been here – I’ve been here for four years – this is the first year where they like to get together and we like to go to the locker room and have a movie night,” Bennett said. “We like to go to the movies, we’ll go out to eat together as a team.”

Barnes also has a new assistant coach in Morgan Valley, a three-time national champion with UConn who was an assistant with her at the University of Washington during their 2016 Final Four run.

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