Why can’t UA women’s basketball compete in the Pac-12?

<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons above -->
                <div>
                    <a class="addthis_button" href="//addthis.com/bookmark.php?v=300" addthis:url='http://phxfan.com/2013/02/does-butts-still-have-time-to-turnaround-ua-womens-hoops/' addthis:title='Why can’t UA women’s basketball compete in the Pac-12?'>
                        <img src="//cache.addthis.com/cachefly/static/btn/v2/lg-share-en.gif" width="125" height="16" alt="Bookmark and Share" style="border:0"/>
                    </a>
                </div>There’s an easy solution to improving this season’s disappointing conference record for the University of Arizona women’s basketball team: schedule more games with Utah. The Wildcats have just one win […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
                <div>
                    <a class="addthis_button" href="//addthis.com/bookmark.php?v=300" addthis:url='http://phxfan.com/2013/02/does-butts-still-have-time-to-turnaround-ua-womens-hoops/' addthis:title='Why can’t UA women’s basketball compete in the Pac-12?'>
                        <img src="//cache.addthis.com/cachefly/static/btn/v2/lg-share-en.gif" width="125" height="16" alt="Bookmark and Share" style="border:0"/>
                    </a>
                </div>

There’s an easy solution to improving this season’s disappointing conference record for the University of Arizona women’s basketball team: schedule more games with Utah.

The Wildcats have just one win in their last 11 games.  They beat Utah 10 days ago.  They also beat the Utes the first time they played them, back on Jan. 18.  Those two wins account for half of their entire conference victories.

If they could play Utah enough times, they might be able to avoid ending the season in the Pac-12 cellar – right where they finished last year.  It’s going to be a challenge to avoid it.  They’re sitting in 10th place and the final two games are against USC, which beat the Cats by 17 the first time they played earlier in the schedule, and No. 17 UCLA, which won by 16.

Arizona is coming off back-to-back losses to rival Arizona State but, ironically, those two games offer some promise of a strong close to an otherwise demoralizing season, the fourth season with a losing record in the five years since Niya Butts took over the program.

In the opening game, it took the Sun Devils two overtime periods to pull off an 81-77 victory in Tucson.  Four Cats scored in double figures, led by Davellyn Whyte‘s 31 points; the senior guard also recorded the program’s first triple-double.  In Sunday’s re-match, it took a three-point basket by Haley Videckis in the final 22 seconds of the game to squeeze out the 59-58 ASU win.

A couple of victories over their rivals in Tempe would have been a huge lift for a team badly in need of a little wind under their wings right now.  But maybe the Cats can build off those near-misses as they host the California schools to close out the schedule.

But regardless of how those final two games end up, Arizona (12-15) is going to post another losing season. They may even meet the projections of the pre-season coaches’ poll that predicted a last-place finish for the Cats.

And it’s those pre-season polls that tell the story.  Last year, the Cats were predicted to finish ninth, the year before it was a seventh-place prediction, and ninth the year before that.

That speaks directly to a primary reason Butts hasn’t been able to get the rebuilding job on track: recruiting.

The Pac-12 is a tough conference and it takes talent to compete; four teams are ranked in the Top 25 nationally. For Arizona, it’s conference play that separates the Wildcat squad from the rest of the pack.  The Cats do well in the non-conference, but hit the wall as soon as conference play starts.

Last year they began the year by rolling through their non-conference schedule by winning 11 of their first 12 games.  They lost to Arizona State in their conference opener and it went downhill from there as they won just two more conference tilts the rest of the way.

This year they began the season with eight wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule.  But, after winning the conference opener, they have notched just three more wins – and suffered a string of eight straight losses from mid-January to mid-February that buried their hopes once again.

The bottom line: Butts is rounding up enough talent to beat the schools she should be beating, but not enough to compete successfully in her own conference.

But she had to understand the full scope of that challenge when she took the job.  She spent five years as an assistant at Kentucky, so she isn’t a stranger to the rigors of recruiting top-level talent.

The problem is, Arizona isn’t Kentucky.  They both share the Wildcat mascot… but not the same tradition-rich recruiting tools.

So winning becomes the best way for Butts to attract the kind of athletes it’s going to take to compete at the level she finds herself.  But it takes those same athletes to begin the winning process.  It’s the usual catch-22 that a lot of coaches are faced with when trying to rebuild a program.

Trouble is, Butts is running out of time.  The memory of that 20-win season three years ago is fading and being replaced with seasons that are lost before they begin.

The recruiting trail beckons.  Time to hit it really hard – and hope the administration (and the fans) remain patient.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)