Pac-12 hoops schedule will be a steep hill for UA women

The important part of the college basketball schedule is fast approaching.  Conference play is just one game away for the University of Arizona women’s team, and things are looking… interesting.

A win today against Longwood University would give the Wildcats an 8-3 non-conference record as they prepare to open Pac-12 play against Washington State on Jan. 4.

And they should beat Longwood, a member of the semi-obscure Big South Conference that has just three wins so far.  The Lancers have lost five of their last seven games, but have a little momentum after the first pair of back-to-back wins this season.

They’re not a high-scoring team.  Longwood was twice held to under 60 points and their high score has been 70 points.  The average margin of victory in their three wins was seven points.  That lack of offensive production can be attributed to .356 shooting from the field, .301 from behind the three-point line, and 67 percent accuracy at the free-throw line.

Arizona, on the other hand, is averaging 64 points a game and has two games of 80+ points – including the last game with Weber State, an 81-49 walk-over.

Like we said, this one should be a ‘W’.

With that said, we also have to consider how meaningless the non-conference portion of the schedule really is.  Last year, the Cats strolled through their non-conference games and ran up a gaudy 11-1 record before starting conference play.

Then reality hit home.  They lost to Arizona State by 15 points in their conference opener and then went on to win just three games during the remainder of the regular season, finishing 15-17 overall and suffering the final indignity of a berth in the Pac-12 cellar.

ASU went on to beat them three times, including the game that knocked them out of the Pac-12 Tournament in the second round.

They don’t have to open again with the Sun Devils, and their first two games are against Washington State, picked in the pre-season to finish 10th in the conference, and Washington, the No. 8 pick.

It should provide an opportunity to gradually roll into the rigors of conference play.

However, the expectations for Arizona were even worse.  The Wildcats were projected to occupy the same spot as last year, last place, when the 2012-13 season goes into the record books.

That means the Cats will have to over-achieve to even get out of the basement this season.  And seven or eight wins in a relatively weak non-conference schedule isn’t going to be much help.

This is the fifth year for head coach Niya Butts, who was hired away in 2008 from Kentucky, where she had been an assistant coach for five years.  But she’s had just one winning season in the last four years, a 20-12 record two years ago that earned the team a berth in the WNIT.

But after the embarrassing swan dive the team took last year, Butts needs to get this year’s team moving up the conference ladder and showing some progress.

This year’s challenging schedule isn’t going to make that any easier than last season.  On that schedule are 11 teams that advanced to either the NCAA or WNIT tournaments last year.  The Cats have already played BYU and UTEP, which both went to the Big Dance last season, and lost by double digits to both.

They have held the edge in rebounding, points, and three-pointers so far this season – but very thin edges.  The Cats are scoring four points more per game than their opponents, collecting a couple more three-pointers, and have a +1.7 margin on the boards.

Their offensive output relies heavily on Davellyn Whyte, the senior guard from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, who is averaging 15.8 points a game.  But only two other players are scoring in double-digits – and just barely.  Both are junior-college transfers.

Alli Boyd, who attended South Mountain High School in Phoenix and then played at Mesa Community College, is averaging 10.6 points a game, and Kama Griffitts, a transfer from Idaho, adds 10.4 points.

But one other statistic the school’s athletic director, Greg Byrne, is undoubtedly keeping on eye on… average attendance for the women’s home games is hovering around 1,900.

Winning would improve that statistic.  And would also help cool the seat under the head coach.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)