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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Clean slate awaits Wildcats in upcoming season despite being picked last in conference

Jesus Barrera

Arizona head coach Niya Butts tries to fire up her players while playing Eastern New Mexico in McKale Center on Nov. 10.

No matter which preseason poll or projection you come across for the Pac-12 Conference, you’ll see the Arizona women’s basketball team listed at the very bottom. In both the Pac-12 Coaches Poll and Media Poll, for example, the Wildcats were picked to finish dead last.

It’s not much of a surprise, though, considering the team was tied for the worst record in the conference last season and lost their best player, Candice Warthen.

“I didn’t expect them to pick us anywhere else,” Arizona head coach Niya Butts said. “I mean, that’s what we showed last year.”

The team finished with a 10-20 record and a 3-15 conference record but is making sure it doesn’t dwell on last season for the wrong reasons. Butts said they have to revisit last year’s depths to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.

It was certainly a rough season, but there’s hope the Wildcats can finally turn things around this year. One reason the team struggled last year was because it had some serious depth issues.

Arizona often played with just eight players and would simply run out of steam in the second half of games. That should change this season, however.

“For us, it’s just depth—having healthy bodies,” Butts said. “This is the first year in three or four years, maybe five, that we’ve actually gone into the season and had everybody that was on the roster able to actually step on the floor and participate and not be out for the season.”

Butts said she felt it was necessary to alter the team’s training habits to help avoid the injury bug.

“Change is a must if you want to continue to grow, and obviously, we [want to] do that,” she said. “We have to keep an eye on how hard we go. … We as coaches have to take a step back and say, ‘We can sit out this drill or maybe sit out this day,’ in order to have them when the season comes around.”

It would be rather unusual for Arizona to have depth, but Butts said she thinks it could actually be the team’s strength this season.

“Our strength will be in our numbers,” Butts said during Pac-12 media day. “I haven’t been able to say that in a while. I think our depth will be pretty good.”

The team’s improved health, along with a revamped roster, has Butts feeling good heading into the season. She said the returners will play an important role, but she’s also confident the freshmen and players who didn’t see the court a lot last season will step up this year.

The Wildcats added four new freshmen, including 6-foot-8 French center Eugenie Simonet-Keller—a three-time selection on the French National Team.

“On the court, [Simonet-Keller] has a lot of tools for us to work with,” Butts said in a press release in April. “She is mobile, has great hands and the ability to face up. [She] has a huge upside and strong work ethic. Our staff is excited to get in the gym with her as she continues to develop her game.”

Simonet-Keller could add some much-needed size to a small Arizona team.

Newcomers aside, the Wildcats will return LaBrittney Jones, who led the team in rebounding last season and is the team’s leading scorer among all returning players. Butts said she expects her to shine, but also expects Jones to be the team’s leader off the court.

“I expect [Jones] to be on the floor, offer us some rebounding ability, as well as being able to score the basketball,” Butts said. “But she has to be able to lead our team inside the locker room, [too].”

Redshirt freshman Taryn Griffey is another key player to watch. Griffey missed the entire season last year due to injury, but was the Florida 8A Player of the Year as a sophomore in high school and could be one of the team’s more talented players.

“I’m just happy for [Griffey],” Butts said. “She hasn’t seen the floor in three years. That can be tough. I’m excited for her. She’s a smart basketball player; she handled her return really well. She’s going to be an asset to this team. I’m looking forward to seeing her once the lights go on.”

The team might not have relatively high expectations compared to the nation’s elite programs, but the newfound depth and talent can provide a positive outlook coming into the season.

“I think every year, you are given a chance to prove something regardless of where you’re picked [to finish],” Butts said. “But every day, we are going to work the same. My mindset is the same every year no matter where you’re picked. My effort doesn’t change.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter.

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