Expectations low for Pac-12 women’s basketball in AZ

With the Arizona and Arizona State men’s programs riding high this season, women’s Pac-12 basketball in Arizona is going to find it tough getting much attention.

The UofA men have been projected to win the conference and make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament, very possibly reaching the Final Four.  And the ASU men, behind the play of sophomore sensation Jahii Carson, should be joining the Cats at this year’s Big Dance; Carson passed up the NBA draft to give the Sun Devils one more year, and is on a mission.

But predictions for the women’s program at both schools are pretty dismal.  In the Pac-12 coaches’ pre-season poll, ASU was pegged for a 10th-place conference finish and UofA was right behind in 11th.  The media weren’t quite that kind to the Cats, projecting them to finish dead last, while ASU earned a sixth-place projection.

And so far, neither team has done much to dispel those expectations.

ASU came out strong, blowing out Hawaii, 84-44, in its non-conference opener, but then turned around and lost the next game to University of San Diego by eight points.  San Diego is a small D-I school (7,800 enrollment) that plays in the second-tier West Coast Conference.  ASU had won seven of the eight games played against the Toreros and last year beat them by 33 points.

The Wildcats have actually showed better in some ways – despite losing both of their first two games.  The Cats started out by losing to Iona College, a MAAC school, but did score 75 points and took the game into overtime.  And their next game was against Big Ten power Michigan.  They lost by just two points to the Wolverines – in another overtime contest.

But any way you look at it, neither team is off to an incendiary start.  Actually, it’s more like they’re picking up from where they left off last season when ASU lost 11 of its final 14 games and Arizona dropped 13 of its last 14.  The Sun Devils broke a 13-year streak of NCAA appearances and finished the season in ninth place in the Pac-12; Arizona tied Oregon State for 10th.

ASU finished 13-18 overall and lost in the first round of the Pac-12 tourney.  Arizona closed out a 12-18 season by also getting bounced in the first round, losing to Utah by almost 20 points.

Arizona appears to have overcome the huge loss of offense that came with the graduation last year of Davellyn Whyte, the sensational player from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix who finished her four-year career at Arizona with the second-highest career point totals (2,059) in school history.  Whyte, a starter in every game during her career, scored in double figures in 100 of her 126 games and posted the first triple-double in program history.

But in the exhibition game against Fort Lewis and the two non-conference openers, the Cats have averaged 75 points a game.  And it appears head coach Niya Butts has found someone to fill in the huge scoring hole left by Whyte.  Junior guard Candice Warthen, who took a redshirt season last year following a knee injury, put up 23 points against Fort Lewis, 22 against New York, and 21 points against Michigan.

ASU’s biggest issue seems to be its inconsistency.  Against Hawaii, the Devils had four players in double figures, shot 56 percent from the field, and held the Rainbow Wahine to 30 percent shooting while creating 26 turnovers.  But despite having three players in double figures against Michigan, ASU bogged down in 33 percent shooting, were outrebounded 41-35, and let the Wolverines complete 46 percent of their shot attempts.

There’s a lot of season laying ahead and plenty of time to start stringing together the wins.  But the pressure to exceed pre-season expectations is heaviest on Butts.

Her counterpart in Tempe, Charli Turner Thorne, is coming off a down season following a nine-month sabbatical she took during the 2011-12 season.  But her record at ASU is solid.  She has taken the team to 12 post-season appearances in her 16 seasons in Tempe and made six appearances in the NCAA Tournament, including a run to the Elite Eight.

Butts, on the other hand, has to begin turning the program around.  Her seat on the bench is getting hotter by the season.  In her five years since replacing hall-of-fame coach Joan Bonvicini, the Cats have had just one winning season when they notched 20 wins in 2010-11.  But the rest of the seasons have been largely embarrassing, with bottom-feeder results in the Pac-12.

Arizona won just four conference games last year and three the year before.  And now, after losing senior forward Alli Gloyd to an ACL tear, it’s looking like a move up the conference ladder is unlikely.  Gloyd was the third-leading scorer last year and was second in rebounding.

Butts has been doing pretty well on the recruiting trail, despite the program’s lack of success, and next year’s recruiting class is one of the best she’s had since arriving in Tucson.  Some analysts rank it as high as third-best in the conference and the addition of a junior-college transfer and a four-star guard out of Dr. Phillips High School in Florida will bring some talent and experience to the 2013-14 season.

However, whether Butts can hold on to her job long enough to put that class on the floor may depend on how this season ends.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)