The greatest season in Arizona women’s basketball history is over and now it’s time to look toward the future. The Wildcats want to make Final Fours regularly now, but some folks are already skeptical about just how good they will be next season.
ESPN omitted Arizona in its way-too-early preseason Top 25. In my opinion, Arizona should be ranked somewhere from 10 to 25. Here are the major questions facing the team entering the offseason.
Will Trinity Baptiste run it back?
We already know Aari McDonald is not returning next season and Sam Thomas is, so that leaves Trinity Baptiste as the only undecided senior left.
The appeal of returning is that she can continue grad school on scholarship, be part of another NCAA Tournament team (that was her goal at Arizona to begin with), and actually experience what it’s like to play in front of UA fans in McKale Center. (Let’s hope COVID is in the rearview mirror by November.)
The Wildcats could certainly use Baptiste’s experience, toughness and all-around game since they have to replace McDonald’s massive production.
If Baptiste does run it back, Arizona will return four of five starters and be primed for another strong year.
How will Arizona replace Aari McDonald?
The short answer is you can’t. Not with one player, at least. Aari was not just a consistently elite scorer; Arizona’s entire defense was built around her ability to pressure the ball. They will have to adjust without her.
Shaina Pellington has long been considered McDonald’s successor and does have some of the same physical tools. She’s fast, quick and strong. And while the Oklahoma transfer did not play all that well in her first season with the Cats, she showed signs of growth in the NCAA Tournament.
It seemed pretty fitting that McDonald’s last game as a Cat was also Pellington’s best. She had 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals against Stanford—almost like a passing of the torch of sorts. McDonald played a lot off the ball while Pellington initiated the plays.
The biggest difference between Pellington and McDonald is that Pellington is basically a non-shooter—she went 1 for 19 from 3 and 27-60 from the free throw line—and isn’t as good of a distributor, finishing the season with more turnovers than assists.
But another year in Arizona’s system could do her a lot of good. She credited her late-season surge to increased confidence.
“Obviously this is a unique situation for me, having to transfer…and then COVID hit, I haven’t played college basketball in a while,” she said. “So I’m playing in a different conference, different setting, different team, so I think the key for this year and myself was just being patient and then things will come as they go.”
Other point guard options include Helena Pueyo, Derin Erdogan or Anna Gret Asi. Pueyo has the skills to be a good lead guard, but we have only seen them in flashes. Erdogan hardly played as a freshman and Asi does not want to play point guard in college, according to Adia Barnes. (More on the recruits in a sec.)
How will Arizona be impacted by the transfer portal?
The transfer portal has usually added rotation- or starter-level players to Arizona’s roster while ridding them of bench players.
Assuming that trend continues, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Mara Mote, Tara Manumaleuga and/or Semaj Smith leave if they want more playing time. They were not in the rotation by the end of the season and saw freshmen like Madi Conner and Lauren Ware leapfrog them in the pecking order.
As for possible additions, Arizona could use a playmaking guard, a shooter, and/or more size and athleticism in the post.
Will Lauren Ware ditch volleyball?
Ware was recruited as a two-sport athlete and, as of now, is planning to re-join the volleyball team in the fall and play Dave Rubio’s squad before returning to the basketball team once the volleyball season concludes. The only reason she didn’t play both this season is because volleyball and basketball completely overlapped because of COVID.
If Ware sticks with her original plan, she wouldn’t be back with Adia Barnes’ crew until December. She would not only miss key offseason workouts and a big part of the non-conference season—which could hurt her development—but she may also be fatigued from going through the grind of a volleyball season.
You can bet Barnes will do her best to convince Ware to stick with basketball for good.
Which newcomers will contribute?
Arizona’s 2021 recruiting class was ranked as the 16th-best in the country by ESPN, but that was all the way back in November before Spanish wing Gisela Sanchez committed to the Cats.
Conner, who enrolled in January, is the highest-ranked recruit and she is ranked No. 71 in ESPN’s Top 100. Post Aaronette Vonleh is No. 100. Estonian combo guard Anna Gret Asi is considered a 4.5-star prospect, whatever that means.
Arizona hasn’t had the best track record with international recruits, so it’s probably smart to wait and see what Asi and Sanchez can contribute before penciling them in for major minutes.
Conner should be ready for a bigger role next season after getting a half-season under her belt. Her 3-point shooting could make a big difference.
Vonleh’s role will depend on what Baptiste and Ware decide. If Baptiste leaves and Ware plays volleyball, Vonleh could start from day one. If Baptiste stays and Ware ditches volleyball, this will be a developmental year for Vonleh.
How will the Final Four run help recruiting?
With all the exposure Arizona and Barnes got during the NCAA Tournament, you would think high-school recruits and transfers would be lining up to join the Wildcats.
It might be too late to add any elite 2021 recruits but Arizona’s 2022 class looks like it could be monstrous.
The transfer portal is teeming with players right now, and perhaps Arizona can land a big name or two to help them make up for McDonald’s departure. In fact, I would bet on it.
Which returners will make the biggest improvement?
With McDonald gone, the Wildcats will need new alphas to emerge. She had, by far, the highest usage rate on the team. Pellington is the obvious replacement, but perhaps upperclassmen like Thomas, Baptiste, and Cate Reese will take it upon themselves to be more assertive. Maybe role players like Bendu Yeaney and Pueyo will become more consistent shooters.
Or maybe bench players like Mote, Manumaleuga, Erdogan and Marta Garcia will benefit from another year in the system and flourish next season. They were all brought to Arizona for a reason.
And while the Wildcats won’t be able to replace McDonald with one player, perhaps they can do it in the aggregate.
“We have a good nucleus,” Barnes said. “They have this experience. They’ve had a taste of this success. So now they can be the leaders next year for everybody else and show what the standard is, what it takes to get here. It takes a little bit more. It takes another level in the pre-season, offseason, to be able to win championships.”
A possible way-too-early depth chart
- PG: Shaina Pellington/Derin Erdogan/Tara Manumaleuga
- SG: Bendu Yeaney/Madi Conner/Anna Gret Asi
- SF: Sam Thomas/Helena Pueyo/Mara Mote
- PF: Cate Reese/Aaronette Vonleh/Marta Garcia
- C: Trinity Baptiste/Lauren Ware/Semaj Smith
This assumes Baptiste is returning, but that is nothing more than speculation at this point. I wanted to have an equal number of players at each position, hence why Pueyo is listed at small forward, even though she can play both guard spots as well.