Media bias? UA women’s hoops picked again to finish last

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                </div>  The University of Arizona women’s basketball program won’t have to accomplish much this season to exceed expectations.  Once again, the media has picked the Wildcats to finish last in […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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The University of Arizona women’s basketball program won’t have to accomplish much this season to exceed expectations.  Once again, the media has picked the Wildcats to finish last in the Pac-12 — despite the addition this season of a nationally-ranked class of recruits.

And, after three straight losing seasons, exceeding expectations will be the key to head coach Niya Butts keeping her job.

The Cats won just one conference game last year, four the year before, and three before that.  That’s not the kind of play that enables a program to compete in a loaded conference like the Pac-12.  Or any other college conference, for that matter.

The 35-year-old Georgia native was hired away from Kentucky, where she was the associate head coach, and put together a 20-win season in her third year at the helm of the Arizona program.  But since then, results have been disappointing at best as the last three seasons found her teams finishing at, or near, the bottom of the conference standings each year.

Her seat on the bench has been getting warmer each season and can officially be labeled as ‘hot’ as she starts the 2014-15 campaign.  Her boss, Vice President for Athletics Greg Byrne, gave her a vote of confidence after last season ended with a 5-24 overall record – something to which he probably gave a lot of thought.

But Byrne is a smart man.  His decision to support his struggling head coach was probably the right move because it removed the cloud of uncertainty that was hanging over the program and affecting recruiting.

He also factored in the problems last year that plagued the program and were beyond Butts’ control.  There were so many injuries that it was impossible at times to conduct a full practice; the active roster was just seven players deep during the final part of the season.

“Just trying to stay healthy this year, that’s our No. 1 priority,” Butts explained during this week’s Pac-12 Media Day.  Winning better also be right up there at the top of that priority list.

Byrne is undoubtedly also looking ahead at the potential for a turn-around and sees that Butts has pulled in a top-25 recruiting class for this season and also recognizes the boost to recruiting that will come with the completion of a major renovation on McKale Center, something prospective players will eat up on future recruiting visits.

But the pessimism of the media has to be worrisome.  These are the people who cover the Pac-12 teams throughout the season, year after year.  They should have a pretty good handle on the prospects for the new season and recognize better than most which programs can be expected to perform in the months ahead.

They gave the Wildcats 12 points in the preseason poll.  To put that in perspective, Stanford, which has been the preseason favorite now for the last 15 years, received 116 points.  Arizona State, which was picked to finish in seventh place, garnered 64 points.

To repeat, Arizona got 12 points.

Butts will have the talent necessary to prove the naysayers wrong.  She will have three starters and four letterwinners returning this season – plus senior forward Alli Gloyd, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.

Gloyd is a redshirt senior from South Mountain High School, one of only two in-state recruits on the roster, who started every game during the 2012-13 season, averaging nine points and six rebounds a game. She developed her game at Mesa Community College where she was named the Arizona Junior College Player of the Year as a sophomore.

Butts lost 18 points and six rebounds a game to graduation, but the returning starters – Candice Warthen (G), LaBrittney Jones (F), and Breanna Workman (F) –combined for 15 points and 14 rebounds a game.  Warthen is a redshirt senior who will provide both leadership and experience at the critical point-guard position.

Add to that a nationally-ranked recruiting class that includes four freshmen and three junior transfers.

Butts has a young team that grew up a lot last year when freshmen were thrown into the fire due to so many injuries to key players.  But whether she gets to hang around to watch the young’uns grow up will depend in large part on what they can do this year to begin turning things around.

“Big ships turn slowly,” she pointed out at Media Day.  “Last year, we had a couple of people try and tug and pull, but our crew was down last year.  I feel good about things, though, because we had a lot of young players who logged big minutes for us last year.”

That listing ship needs to begin making a much tighter turn because there isn’t time for a wide swing.  Butts got a contract extension amid the euphoria that came with a 20-win season four years ago, but a college coach’s security is not based on words on paper, but results on the floor.

Butts’ predecessor, hall-of-famer Joan Bonvicini, was fired in 2008 with a year still left on her contract after a stretch of three seasons that resulted in a total 11 conference wins.

After this season, Butts will also have a year left on her contract.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)