Women’s hoops: ASU, UA programs on different trajectories

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                </div>  Charli Turner Thorne has her Arizona State women’s basketball team back on track.  After losing 11 of the final 14 games last season, the Sun Devils are off to […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Charli Turner Thorne has her Arizona State women’s basketball team back on track.  After losing 11 of the final 14 games last season, the Sun Devils are off to an 8-1 start.

But the Arizona Wildcats are still off the rails.  The Cats also had a melt-down last season, losing 13 of their final 14 games, but the bleeding continues into the new season as Arizona has won just two of its first nine games – and one of those was an exhibition romp over Division II Fort Lewis to start the season.

And these are non-conference games, the ones you’re supposed to win to pad your record before going into conference play.  That has to be a sobering thought right now for Arizona’s sixth-year head coach, Niya Butts, because her teams have really struggled against Pac-12 competition.

Arizona recorded four conference wins last season; both ASU and Arizona were eliminated in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.

Arizona’s lack of success in the conference is reflected each year in the pre-season polls.  The Wildcats were predicted to finish in 11th place this season, last place in 2012, ninth the year before that, seventh the year before that…and so on.  Their most success came in 2011 when the Cats posted a 21-win season, with a 10-8 conference record for a fifth-place finish.

The last couple of years, the Wildcat women have done what was expected of them during the non-conference schedule.  They won their first eight games last season and 11 of the first 12 the year before.  So losing seven of eight to start this season has to be particularly worrisome for Butts, who’s sitting on a seat on the bench that grows warmer by the year and realizing that she may not have enough of those non-conference wins to give her team some cushion going into conference play.

Arizona State also wasn’t given a vote of confidence before this season began.  The Sun Devils were picked in the pre-season coaches’ poll to finish in 10th place, just a rung above Arizona.  But Turner Thorne is building some momentum going into Pac-12 play and could prove the naysayers wrong.

After all, ASU has finished third or higher in the conference nine times since 2001.

But, Arizona… that’s another story. Based on results so far, there’s really no reason to believe the Cats will be any more competitive in the Pac-12 play than in years past.  This season they’ll try to get the job done without their biggest offensive weapon from years past, Davellyn Whyte, who graduated last year as No. 2 on the school’s all-time career scoring list with 2,059 points.  The do-everything guard from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix ranks in the top four of the nine all-time career categories.

Without Whyte on the floor this year, the Cats are averaging just a shade above 60 points a game.  They will need more output when they have to step up to competition in the Pac-12, which is one of the toughest conferences in the nation.

Contrast that with ASU, which has scored 80 or more points six times this season.

But even in the four years that Whyte led the Arizona program, those teams enjoyed just one winning season. This year they won’t have the kind of go-to player that Whyte provided, but it’s a quick, athletic team that returns several key players and has four seniors on the roster to provide some leadership.

However, next season has more promise.  The 2014 recruiting class is considered one of the best in program history, a top-25 class that is ranked third-best in the Pac-12.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Butts this year will be hanging around long enough to get that class on the floor.  One winning season in five years and a 1-7 start this year doesn’t make for good odds that another season at Arizona  is in her future.

Senior guard Kama Griffitts started all but two games last year and was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Whyte. She’s the second-leading scorer again this year at 12.6 points per game, behind Candice Warthen‘s 14.5.

When asked about the team goals this year, Griffitts said she “would like to finish in the top four in the Pac-12, or have a winning season.”

Those aren’t terribly lofty goals in themselves.  But their attainment would at least be a starting point in the climb back up the ladder – and might be enough to bring her head coach back for another year.

(Photo: ASU Athletics)