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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Conference doormat? Not necessarily

    Arizonas offense has often sputtered in Pacific 10 Conference play, but a stout defense and relentless effort is getting the team noticed by Pac-10 coaches.
    Arizona’s offense has often sputtered in Pacific 10 Conference play, but a stout defense and relentless effort is getting the team noticed by Pac-10 coaches.

    At the start of the 2008-09 season, coaches in the Pacific 10 Conference viewed the games against the Wildcats as resume builders for the NCAA Tournament in March. A less-than-spectacular 2007-08 season, a new coach and a roster full of freshmen landed Arizona in the basement of the preseason Pac-10 standings.

    So far this season, at least on paper, the team is living up to its billing. An 0-6 start in league play has left the Wildcats as the lone winless team in the conference. To the casual observer it would seem the Niya Butts era has gotten off to a disastrous start.

    That record, however, is deceiving. While nobody wants to lose their first six conference games, the way the Wildcats played in games they lost is impressive. The Pac-10 is a difficult conference and Arizona had the displeasure of facing the conference’s elite teams – including California and Stanford, nationally ranked No. 8 and No. 11 respectively.

    “”Their starting five is very good,”” USC head coach Mark Trakh said after a narrow Trojan win in Tucson on Jan. 15. “”They have some excellent players, and once they get some depth they’re going to be good. Butts is doing a great job and will continue to do a great job.””

    In most of its conference games, Arizona played competitively and even sustained leads, only to cough them up during the stretch. Against USC, Arizona held two double-digit leads in the game, only to give them both up en route to a 77-71 overtime loss.

    While the losses are piling up, the Wildcats seem to be gaining respect amongst coaches across the league.

    Trakh, like most coaches around the league, have recognized that the preliminary “”pieces of the puzzle”” are there for the Wildcats. He was especially fond of sophomore forward Ify Ibekwe.

    Ibekwe, who generally has been on the receiving end of opponents’ double-teaming and is the focal point of defensive game plans, leads the UA in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots.

    “”Ify is a great player, no questions about it,”” UCLA head coach Nikki Caldwell said after the Bruins gutted out a 48-38 win in McKale. “”She is a great competitor and … puts the team first; which is what I like. … Right now, Ify is a First-team All-Pac-10.””

    The core of the team, which also features freshman guard Reiko Thomas, is admittedly young. Arizona’s roster features only three seniors, four different freshmen have started games at one point during the season and Ibekwe is only a sophomore. While the youth garners excitement for the future, it is most certainly playing a role in the team losing leads down the stretch.

    “”We are a very young team, and maybe we don’t know how to win yet,”” Ibekwe said when asked why the team continues to surrender leads.

    Yes, the future is indeed bright, but unfortunately the future is not now. The fact remains that the Wildcats have dropped their first six Pac-10 contests and teams are only getting better at this point.

    However, one thing that could work in Arizona’s favor is its scouting. Not only have Butts and company made a name for themselves in energizing their team, they also compile top-of-the-line scouting reports for their players.

    “”The coaches are great at helping us get ready,”” said senior Amina Njonkou. “”The scouting reports have so much (information), we know everything that the other team will do.””

    There is no question the team is improving, and it shows with the way it played in its two most recent games. Regardless of this season’s outcome, the direction the program is headed is no secret.

    “”I would just like to give credit to Arizona, Niya had them really prepared,”” California head coach Joanne Boyle said in her post-game news conference following her team’s 56-46 win in McKale Center on Jan. 2. “”They’re playing with some new energy, and they’re going to beat up on some teams this year.””

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