The college football season hasn’t had an opening game yet, but the next sport in line is already getting prepared to take the floor. It’s just 10 weeks to the first basketball practice.
And no college hoops coach in Arizona is anticipating the start more than Niya Butts in Tucson.
The 34-year-old head coach at the University of Arizona needs a strong showing this season after her Cats finished in the Pac-12 cellar in 2012, posting a 15-17 overall record and winning just three conference games.
That was after leading the team to a 20-12 finish in 2011 and getting an invitation to play in the WNIT, the program’s first venture into the post-season since the 2004-05 season.
But she needs a successful outing this year to be able to claim that wasn’t just a fluke. Butts had losing seasons her first two years at the helm of the program, so she’s only notched one winning season in four tries. Her predecessor, Joan Bonvicini, took the program to seven NCAA Tournament berths before the program slid into mediocrity in the final years of her reign.
Butts was hired away from Kentucky in 2008, where she was an assistant for five years, to stop the slide and return the program to national prominence. For awhile, it looked like the Wildcats were headed there as the program came off a 20-win season and then started last year’s march to another post-season appearance by winning 10 of 11 games, the best start in a decade.
But the wheels came off the bus just as the conference schedule began. The Cats lost to cross-state rival, Arizona State, 45-60, and then couldn’t get back on track after that. To make matters worse, they lost a second meeting with the Sun Devils at the end of the season, 53-68.
And when the new conference schedule was released in late June, Butts and her newly-re-organized coaching staff discovered it isn’t going to be easy getting back up in the saddle. The Cats will face 11 teams that advanced to either the WNIT or NCAA tournament last season.
The NCAA tourney teams include Stanford, California, BYU, and UTEP.
Butts had to do some juggling in the off-season when her associate head coach, Sue Darling, took the head coaching job at Northern Arizona University (see 6/19/12 phxfan article). She promoted Brandy Manning to Darling’s seat on the bench and then added Calamity McEntire to the staff.
Manning has been with Butts from the start of her tenure in Tucson, serving as the team’s recruiting coordinator and working with the defense and post players. McEntire arrived from Boise State, where she has been an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for four years. She also spent two years on staff at UC Santa Barbara, serving as the program’s Director of Women’s Basketball Operations, and a couple of years as an assistant at Fresno State.
The re-organized staff will be working with a roster that will have seven returning players, including local standout Davellyn Whyte from St. Mary’s High School in downtown Phoenix, a 5’11” guard that averaged 17 points and just under seven rebounds a game last season, earning her a spot on the All-Pac 12 Team.
This season there will be two other local products playing for Butts: Simone Westbrook, a 5’10” freshman guard from Chandler High School, and Alli Gloyd, who graduated from South Mountain High School in Phoenix and then went on to play two years at Mesa Community College. Gloyd is a 6’1″ forward who was named the Arizona Junior College Player of the Year after averaging 15 points and 8.8 rebounds last season.
Last season, the Sun Devils went on to post a 20-12 record after beating the Wildcats twice, eventually finishing in fourth place in the conference.
Butts needs something similar this year for her program. A couple of wins against her rival in Tempe, combined with another 20-win season and a post-season invitation (preferably from the NCAA) would go a long way to keep her critics at arm’s length.
Unfortunately for her, beating ASU is going to be even harder this year since the Devils’ head coach, Charli Turner Thorne, will be back on the bench after taking a year off and turning the program over to an assistant for the 2011-12 season.
Charli is going to be rested and ready.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)