Even before the Arizona Wildcats made an unexpected run to the Final Four, Adia Barnes claimed that her 2022 recruiting class will be “very strong.” The Wildcats already had a commitment from five-star guard Kailyn Gilbert and were finalists for several other elite recruits.*
You can bet they will land some of those players now.
Arizona’s big wins have thrust them into the national spotlight and undoubtedly caught the eye of some big-time prospects. ESPN revealed that this year’s Sweet Sixteen was the most watched since 2013.
2021 @ncaawbb Championship Sweet 16
— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) March 30, 2021
Among the four teams left standing, Arizona recruits at the worst level. A run this can help them bridge the gap and reach this stage more regularly. Who wouldn’t want to be the next Aari McDonald or Sam Thomas?
“It means a lot,” Barnes said. “I think when you win, I think you have the proof that you’re doing something right and are successful. I think in our program, our players improve. If you look at Cate (Reese) as a freshman, you look at Aari two or three years ago, you look at Sam (Thomas) her freshman year, our players get better. We pride ourselves on player development. We pride ourselves on a lot of little things that I think a lot of programs don’t do. It’s just our philosophy. It had to be our philosophy because we weren’t getting McDonald’s All-Americans. Some programs have a lot, we don’t. We have one who is Cate Reese. We have to get our players better, prepare them, and figure out to grind it out.”
Barnes also thinks Arizona plays a brand of basketball that appeals to elite athletes.
“I think our defense this year has been phenomenal,” she said. “I think our style of play is fun. I think players want to play in an exciting style. We go do that. We don’t sit back in zones, play percentages. We get out and guard you. That’s the way I loved to play as a player. That was fun. Turning people over, going in transition, that’s a fun style. I don’t think it’s fun walking up the court and playing percentages on defense. That’s what we do.
“I think I’m a player’s coach. Aari, I let her go. She’s one of the best guards in the country. I guide her. They go out and play. I think a good sign for a coach is when your players play hard for you. Nothing’s perfect anywhere, but they play hard and they believe and they have confidence.”
Barnes and husband/assistant coach Salvo Coppa have put a strong emphasis on creating a family-like culture. (Barnes’ shirt last game literally said “Culture.”) McDonald, who’s known Barnes since she was a sophomore in high school, likened her coach to a sister or mother.
“I know I can go and talk to her not just about basketball but life, what I’m going through, what I’m dealing with,” McDonald said. “You just always want to have a relational coach on your side. I think that’s how it kind of plays a part in basketball. I trust her, she trusts me. I mean, just a young player, playing in a coach who believes in me, very relational. Not just cares about you on the court but cares about your well-being.”
Thomas, a former four-star recruit who committed to Arizona when most players of her caliber wouldn’t have even considered the Wildcats, said that was a huge factor in her decision to be a Wildcat.
“As soon as I came on my visit, I knew this was a special place and she kept being honest with me, being straight up saying, ‘we’re not going to be top-three team in the Pac-12’ and I knew that coming in, so it wasn’t like I was blindsided by six wins,” Thomas said. “I knew we weren’t going to be the best team, but I just trusted her. I took a leap of faith and I trusted her, she trusted me and we’ve been riding this out. Now we’re at the Final Four.”
*Top 2022 recruits with Arizona among their finalists:
- 5-star point guard Kiki Rice (No. 6 overall)
- 5-star forward Maya Nnaji (No. 8 overall)
- 5-star point guard Chance Gray (No. 14 overall)
- 4-star point guard Londynn Jones (No. 15 overall)
- 4-star forward Grace VanSlooten (No. 16 overall)
- 4-star shooting guard KK Bransford (No. 27 overall)
- 4-star post Kennedy Basham (No. 28 overall)
- 4-star guard Carleigh Wenzel (No. 37 overall)
- 4-star post Sa’Myah Smith (No. 44 overall)
And these are just the ones that have been reported.