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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Butts poised to turn it around

    After 16 years of consistent basketball, the shadow of the recently departed women’s head coach Joan Bonvicini looms tall.

    But no one is more suited for the challenge than 6-foot Niya Butts, Arizona’s new head coach.

    Butts, who was hired in April, comes to Tucson with an eager attitude and limitless potential, and although this is her first head coaching gig, she is more than ready for the challenge.

    Butts’ sparkling resume stretches back to her days as a player. She signed with the University of Tennessee after a superb career at Americus High School in Georgia, and instead of getting lost in the sea of stars that is Lady Volunteer basketball, Butts stood out as a leader both on and off the court.

    As a four-year letter winner, Butts was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 1997 and was a key member of the Lady Vols back-to-back National Championship teams in 1997 and 1998.

    In addition to her experience as a player at Tennessee, Butts has learned from head coach Pat Summit, whose 983 wins make her the winningest women’s basketball coach in NCAA history.

    “”The one thing I take (from coach Summit) is discipline,”” Butts said. “”(Summit) always taught us to be disciplined, on and off the court, and that’s something that we need to do here to be successful.””

    After her playing career, Butts served as an assistant coach at Tennessee Tech, Michigan State and Kentucky before she was eventually hired as the top gun at Arizona.

    “”My first impressions (of UA) have been really good,”” Butts said. “”The people have been great, the administration has been great and the team has responded. It’s been awesome so far.””

    Butts’ positive attitude is a good sign for the Wildcats, who are ranked dead last in the Pacific 10 Conference preseason women’s basketball poll after a poor 2007-2008 campaign (10-20, 4-14 Pac-10 Conference).

    Rather than see the poor ranking as a slight against her team, however, Butts views it as an opportunity.

    “”Respect is earned,”” Butts said with the fervor of a politician. “”It’s an awesome opportunity for our players to understand that nobody gives you anything. You have to go out and get what you want, and our coaches and players know that we have to go out and earn it.””

    The key to earning that respect, according to Butts, doesn’t come from flashy play or scoring 100 points a game.

    “”We need to put forth our best effort every night,”” Butts said. “”They’ve been doing a great job and are working really hard, and they have to do that because it’s required.””

    The endless quest for maximum effort has been well noted by the players, to say the least.

    “”One thing about coach Butts is that no matter how well you do, she’s always expecting more,”” said senior forward Amina Njonkou. “”She is always trying to make you work harder. If you get 10 rebounds, she’ll ask why you didn’t get 15.””

    Freshman guard Reiko Thomas agreed.

    “”She’s not going to let down, she’s going to continue to be on us for everything so we can get better and win consistently,”” Thomas said.

    In addition to effort, Butts said the combination of consistent focus and concentration creates a recipe for success.

    “”We need to stay focused for an entire 40 minutes of every ball game, and that’s a lot harder than it sounds,”” Butts said. “”Staying focused for an entire game is always hard, especially with a young team like ours.

    “”So I put out a challenge to the players,”” she added. “”We break each game into four-minute segments, with a goal of focusing and winning each segment. This helps our players stay fresh, and it makes the game seem more manageable.””

    As Butts said, an element that can’t be avoided is the amount of fresh faces on the roster. The Wildcats feature five freshmen this year and all of them are expected to contribute.

    “”We have a lot of young players, and we need them to mature quickly so that they can be factors for us,”” Butts said. “”Knowing that (the freshmen) have the opportunity to play gives them valuable experience, and by the time next semester rolls around, I expect them to be sophomores on the floor.””

    When speaking about the freshmen, Butts’ face lit up like a Christmas tree. Not only have they done well in practice adjusting to college life while helping to reshape a prestigious basketball program, they have also shined during games.

    In the lone exhibition game of the preseason, Jhakia McDonald and Thomas both started in Butts’ 2-3 backcourt formation. In that game, Thomas recorded a game high 39 minutes that saw her score a game high 20 points.

    Despite their success, Butts knows the key to any good team is, well, teamwork.

    “”We have to do it together,”” Butts said. “”There are no individuals, and the team isn’t shouldered by one or two players. We need to band together, and everybody needs to contribute, whether on the floor or on the bench. We all need to give 110 percent.””

    After the team realizes the magnitude of effort and focus expected from them, Butts seems to have a strong hold on the “”X’s and O’s”” on the court. Some teams win by lighting up the scoreboard, some teams win with stout defense and some teams try to find a happy medium.

    The plan for the Wildcats this year is to go with what works but also focus on defense.

    “”I think we need a good balance (to win),”” Butts said. “”Some nights the offense will be working, some nights it won’t, and unless we’re going to score 100 points a night I think we have to be a good defensive team.

    “”We need to rebound the ball, and we’re going to have to be able to stop some teams,”” she said. “”Defense and rebounding win basketball games; offense sells tickets.””

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