Is Niya Butts turning around UA women’s basketball?

This may be the year Niya Butts turns the corner in Tucson.

The third-year women’s basketball coach at University of Arizona has the Wildcats off to a great start and tomorrow will get a chance to test her rebuilding efforts against one of the country’s best teams.

The Cats hit the road for their first Pac-10 road games as they meet No. 4 Stanford tomorrow night at Maples Pavilion, and then take on California on Saturday.  It’s been just a week since Stanford ended the University of Connecticut’s historic 90-game winning streak.

This year’s squad is 11-2 overall and are coming off wins against Oregon and Oregon State to open Pac-10 play.

Handling the Oregon schools can’t compare to trying to match up with Stanford.  But those two games set some new marks for the program, which will go a long way toward building some early-season confidence.

In the Pac-10 opener against Oregon, the Cats got over the 100-point hump for the first time since mid-January last year.  The 109-94 win was a result of six players scoring in double figures, as junior, Shanita Arnold, led the way with a game-high 25 points, the best effort of her career.

Ify Ibekwe hit 19 and Brooke Jackson scored 14, followed by 13 points from freshman Erica Barnes, 12 from Soana Lucet, and 11 from sophomore Davellyn Whyte.  Whyte was last year’s Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

The Cats had a 64.8 shooting percentage in that game, the highest in the history of the program, and made 46 field goals, which also tops the school’s list for conference play.

Against Oregon State, the Cats managed just 67 points, but it was enough for a slim 2-point win.  Arnold led the team in scoring again, putting up 17 points and seven assists.

The 11-2 start following that win is the first time that has happened since the 2003-04 season, and the first time in six years that Arizona has opened conference play with two consecutive wins.

Three players scored in double figures against the Beavers, as Ibekwe added 16 and Whyte came through with 12 more.  Ibekwe, a senior forward, also grabbed 10 boards for her fourth double-double of the season.

This is all incredibly encouraging to Butts, who was hired away from the University of Kentucky in April of  ’08, where she spent five years as an assistant coach.  Her job has been to begin righting the ship that has been listing for too many years.

She replaced Joan Bonvicini after the 2007-08 season, when the Cats went 10-20 overall and 4-14 in conference for an eighth-place finish.

Bonvicini guided the program for 17 years and took them to a tie for first place in the Pac-10 in 2005, finishing 24-0 overall and 14-4 in conference.  In 2007, she became just the 18th coach to win 600 games at the Division I level.

But the next three years, the Cats won less than half their games and then-Athletic Director Jim Livengood terminated her with a year still remaining on her contract.

Butts, 32, had played her college ball at Tennessee for Pat Summitt and helped the Vols to two national championships.  She was one of the hot young coaches at the time Livengood hired her.

And she had already shown what she could do with a rebuilding program, helping take Kentucky to an NCCA Tournament appearance in 2005-06 and also earning three trips to the WNIT.

She didn’t tear up the hardwood in Tucson right away, going 12-19/4-14 and 14-17/6-12 her first two years.  But each year showed a few more wins.  The 14 wins in the 2009-10 campaign were the most posted in any one season in five years.

Now her recruiting efforts are beginning to bear fruit and this year’s edition appears poised to have a break-out season.

However, Stanford isn’t likely to be too impressed.

The match-up with the Cardinal will provide a real test for her Wildcats.  But it could also be a huge signature win for a program needing validation.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)