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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Plenty of question marks but solutions starting to appear

    UA forward Amina Njonkou stretches out for a rebound during a 48-38 loss to UCLA on Jan. 18 in McKale Center. The senior said she was impressed with head coach Niya Butts relentless coaching style, saying, Shes never satisfied and always thinks we can do better.
    UA forward Amina Njonkou stretches out for a rebound during a 48-38 loss to UCLA on Jan. 18 in McKale Center. The senior said she was impressed with head coach Niya Butts’ relentless coaching style, saying, “”She’s never satisfied and always thinks we can do better.””

    Women’s Hoops Notes

    When new UA women’s basketball head coach Niya Butts was hired following last year’s debacle of a season, it was clear she was not only brought in to call new plays, but to take the program in a new direction.

    While the season won’t be bringing the national title to Tucson, it is certainly planting the seeds for a successful future. Here’s a look at three key factors to an elite program that Butts has already put into place.

    Faith in the coach

    Butts’ high expectations and refusal to accept anything but maximum effort from her players might seem crude and borderline over-the-top, but her players wouldn’t want it any other way.

    “”She always pushes us to do our best,”” said senior forward Amina Njonkou. “”She’s never satisfied and always thinks we can do better, and it makes us do harder.””

    Butts is an extremely motivated coach who epitomizes the phrase “”eye on the prize.”” When in practice, she maintains a tight schedule, capitalizing on every minute of practice allowed to her team, and on game days she is so intense that her piercing glares and barked orders even catch the attention of the opposition.

    What is most impressive about Butts is that she is always coaching. As the buzzer went off to end the first half in the teams 48-38 loss to UCLA two weeks ago, the players and coaches from both teams quickly filed into their respective locker rooms. Rather than wait until she was out of the McKale Center crowd’s sight, Butts pulled a few players aside to demonstrate the importance of gaining appropriate depth while posting up.

    “”Coach Butts is always telling us that we can do anything,”” said sophomore forward Ify Ibekwe. “”She is always encouraging us and, as a player, when you keep on hearing it over and over, it begins to sink in.””

    A young player to build around

    Every team needs a centerpiece. The Bulls had Jordan, the Yankees had Jeter and the 49ers had Montana. Although those teams and their accomplishments are on a much larger scale, every team that enjoys sustained success needs a player to build around.

    It is a little more difficult to accomplish that in college because a player can only play for four years, so the “”face of the team”” must be young. Butts and the Wildcats have hit the jackpot in sophomore forward Ify Ibekwe.

    Ibekwe is enjoying an incredible season – her 11.9 rebounds per game lead the Pacific 10 Conference and her 15.7 points per game are good enough for second ÿ- and would be a lock for Pac-10 Player of the Year if Arizona wasn’t currently winless in the conference.

    With Ibekwe smack dab in the middle of the forward movement, however, the Wildcats could be far from last place.

    “”I’m really proud of the way Ify’s played,”” Butts said.

    Since Ibekwe puts up staggering statistics on a regular basis, it seems Butts is hounded with questions about her approval of Ibekwe and her stellar play, and it’s not just the media that’s constantly keeping an eye on her.

    “”Ify is a great player, no questions about it,”” said UCLA head coach Nikki Caldwell after her team’s victory over Arizona. “”She is a great competitor and has great length, battles on every possession and puts the team first, which is what I like.””

    Unfortunately for Ibekwe, the attention from opposing coaches doesn’t only come in flattering compliments, but also the attention of defensive game plans.

    “”When we were guarding her we said we had to have assistance and keep her off the boards,”” Caldwell said.

    Fresh faces, fresh results

    Not only will Butts have the pleasure of coaching Ibekwe for the next two seasons, but she will be able to coach a stable of promising freshman.

    Butts has started four different freshmen in guards Reiko Thomas, Courtney Clements, Jhakia McDonald and Faihza Hill. Not only are the freshmen logging valuable minutes, they are compiling some pretty impressive statistics – especially considering the unprecedented amount of pressure placed on them.

    Thomas, the most productive of the four, is second on the team in scoring with 11.7 points per game. What’s more, she’s started all 16 games that she’s played in and she has averaged a staggering 37.1 minutes per game.

    In addition to her time on the court, McDonald averaged 36.8 minutes per game before suffering a leg injury, and Clements averages a shade less than 32 minutes per game.

    But in Butts’ eyes, it’s all part of the learning curve.

    “”They’ve responded well,”” Butts said. “”But at this point, they are more like sophomore on the court.””

    They certainly have had to grow at a faster pace than most freshmen athletes, but their progress has been remarkable. Sure, this season’s record indicates that they are in over their head, but the playing time they will have years down the line can’t be underestimated.

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