UA women’s basketball adds new weapon…the dunk


Even the most outrageous predictions sometimes come true, particularly in the world of sports.

For example, who could have predicted that Bruce Jenner, given the title “world’s best athlete” after winning the men’s decathlon at the 1976 Olympics, would turn out to actually be a woman?

Or that the University of Arizona women’s basketball team, after failing to post a winning season in the last four years, would be able to attract a recruit that sets the record for being the tallest player in program history?

But, as we know now, both improbable scenarios have become fact.

Jenner, now going by Caitlyn instead of Bruce, has apparently made the transition rather smoothly.  But the transition from high school to the college level for a six-foot, eight-inch teenager will not likely be as smooth.

However, Eugenie Simonet-Keller already has three seasons of playing with the French Women’s National Team, which should be a huge benefit as she begins making the adjustment to the college game in the very competitive Pac-12.  Scouting reports say she has great hands and plays well with her back to the basket, but is also mobile in transition.

Do we need to add that she can also rebound and block shots?

The 19-year-old native of France has been attending the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a private training academy for young players up to adult, and was ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz as the No. 72 center in this year’s recruiting class.

She was the final piece to the puzzle for head coach Niya Butts as Butts continues to look for an answer to getting this program back on top after years of residing on the bottom rungs of the Pac-12 ladder.  Last year’s team finally hit the .500 mark with an overall record of 10-20, but that included just three conference wins.

Butts has had just one winning season in her seven years as the Wildcats’ head coach, so to say she is on the hot seat for next season would be an understatement.

Simonet-Keller is part of a four-player recruiting class that will provide some welcome relief for a team last season that went 6’1″ as its tallest player.  The group also includes Destiny Graham, a 6’3″ forward from California that averaged 16 points and 14 rebounds as a senior, and 6’2″ A’Shanti Coleman, also from California where she averaged 15.5 points and 12 rebounds.

Michal Miller, a 5’7″ guard from Indiana who shot 48 per cent from the floor and averaged 24.7 points for her Michigan City High School team, rounds out the group.

Butts loses just two seniors to graduation from the 2014-15 team and returns 12 players, so there won’t be a lot of blending needed.  However, those two players were key starters and included Candice Warthen, who led the team in scoring. Junior forward LaBrittney Jones will be expected to carry much of the scoring load this coming season after averaging nine points a game last season, while also contributing 5.7 rebounds per outing.

So is there a downside to having a 6’8″ center on the floor?  Yes, says Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello.

Brondello has her own 6’8″ player in Brittney Griner, who is in her second season out of college and beginning to get a feel for the pro game.  But Brondello says much of Griner’s success is out of her control and rests with her teammates.

“We need to know how to play to a 6-foot-8 girl,” said Brondello in a recent article in The Arizona Republic.  “We don’t have Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor here anymore to be able to pass it into her.  There is a skill involved in that… We’ve just got to put her in position where we can get her easy baskets.”

If at least one or two of those easy baskets involve dunking the ball, all the better for the fans.

When she was playing at Baylor, Griner became just the seventh woman in NCAA history to dunk the ball when she put one down in a late November game in 2009 against Jacksonville State.  After that, she became one of the most high-profile college athletes in the country and eventually the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft.

And don’t think that first dunk for Simonet-Keller won’t be on the minds of Wildcat fans as each game progresses through the schedule.  It may become a key motivator this season to help build attendance at McKale Center.

But if that’s what it takes to fill the seats, so be it.  Doing it by winning games hasn’t been an option lately.