The University of Arizona women’s basketball team is coming off a 5-24 record from last season and had lost both of its first two games when it played host to UC Santa Barbara last week. But that game drew a record crowd.
OK, it’s far short of the 14,000-plus fannies the men’s team normally puts in the seats. But the 6,268 fans that showed up did set a new attendance record at McKale Center for the women’s basketball program.
Not the men’s program, which is currently ranked No. 3 in the country. But for the women’s program that hasn’t had a winning record in three years and has become a frequent occupant at the bottom of the Pac-12 standings.
That begs the question: what’s the draw? And how long will it last?
The women gave the fans what they wanted to see by beating UC Santa Barbara, 61-34, but then split a pair of games over the weekend at the Florida International University Thanksgiving Classic, so their 2-3 start still hasn’t evolved into a winning record. Even if you throw in their exhibition win over Concordia, they’re still just a .500 team.
But this has been a team that usually starts strong, despite the fact that they lost seven of their first eight games last year – which contributed in a big way to that 5-25 final record and one conference win. But just in recent years they opened the 2012-13 campaign 11-1, the 2011-12 season 10-1, and the year before were off to an 11-2 start.
So how did they fill more than 6,000 seats at McKale with an 0-2 start?
Perhaps they are feeding off the excitement generated by the men’s program, which went to the Elite Eight last year and is already in early-season speculation about contending for a national championship. That buzz on campus may be spilling over to the women’s program.
Promotional programs for the elementary and high school teams to attend free or at a reduced price could also be helping. Many of the schools were beginning their Thanksgiving break and young players were available to take in a college game.
And maybe the community outreach the team has been doing in the off-season is also helping to forge a bond with the local fan base.
Sometimes, a look at the roster offers an answer for increased fan interest, since local athletes bring a familiarity and a curiosity factor. But Butts has just one local player on the floor, Alli Gloyd, a redshirt senior from South Mountain High School who is a starting forward. Lauren Evans, a junior guard from Hamilton High School shows up on the roster but not on the stats sheet.
Or more simply, maybe the fans are anticipating better things to come. After all, the team showed well in its first two games, losing to CSU Bakersfield and Texas Tech by a combined seven points.
And scoring has shown some improvement. This year’s squad is averaging 64 points a game. That’s already better than the 61-point average they posted last season. And that’s what the fans were expecting from a program that pulled in a top-25 recruiting class this year.
However, the defense doesn’t appear to be making any progress yet. The 59 points a game they are allowing opponents is right where they finished the 2013-14 season.
Sure, it’s still too early in the schedule to be making any predictions based on a handful of games. But head coach Niya Butts knows her team will be under that kind of scrutiny this season, right from the first few games. Such is the plight of any head coach that starts a new season on the hot seat following a string of disappointing years.
These Wildcats are living under a microscope, not just the one their fans are using, but one her boss is using to track her progress. Greg Byrne, the school’s athletic director, didn’t bring Butts into the program back in 2008 since he arrived after her hire, but he did give her a surprising vote of confidence soon after last season wrapped up, letting Wildcat Nation know she would be returning for her seventh season.
He’s obviously betting on a recovery for a coach that was able to post a 21-win season in her third year in charge. That was right before things began going south.
And Byrne’s move was a smart one because it removed any concerns prospective recruits might have had that she might not be there when they actually arrived on campus. That would have been a huge drag on the recruitment efforts at a time when Butts and her staff are beginning to make inroads in the process.
But there’s little doubt that this is her make-or-break season in Tucson. It appears the fans are still with her – at least for now. But college fans can be a fickle lot.
It will be wins, or the lack thereof, that will determine Butts’ future. She knew that when she took the job.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)