You know your Pac-12 program is in trouble when you have to travel to Toledo to play the season opener.
Not just play a team from Toledo, mind you, but make the trip to their home court for the game.
The University of Arizona women’s basketball team did just that yesterday afternoon, and at least made the trip worthwhile. But just barely, beating the University of Toledo Rockets by three points.
Maybe it was about finding a bigger audience. The 3,713 fans that showed up in Toledo are almost three times morer than the average crowd for a home game in McKale Center last season. Last week’s home exhibition game with Eastern New Mexico drew even fewer than last year’s 1,376 average. It took three spectators to enable the Cats to break the 1,000 mark in that one.
Not an encouraging sign to start the season, but that’s the price you pay when you’re coming off some really disappointing seasons.
The Toledo win was even in doubt, right up to the final minute. The game was tied at 59 and it took a lay-up and made free throw from junior forward Breanna Workman to squeeze out the 62-59 win and give the Wildcats, picked by the Pac-12 coaches for a last-place finish again this season, a much-needed boost of confidence to start a new season.
They were also picked to finish last in the 2014-15 pre-season poll. For each of the last fours years, the Cats have finished their season at, or near the bottom, of the Pac-12 standings. Last year they won five conference games, won just one the year before, and four the season before that.
That’s why the non-conference portion of the schedule, where they’re able to build in some early wins, is so important. Once they get to conference play, the real struggles begin.
Toledo, which plays in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), finished fourth in their conference last year, compiling a 19-14 record. Their exhibition game a week ago was against a D-II program.
But, hey, a win is a win. Even if you have to travel almost 2,000 miles to get it.
“It was a great, great environment for us to play in,” said Arizona head coach Niya Butts as she made every effort to put a positive spin on the game. “It was a tough road environment, tough team, and our kids hung tough.”
That statement does raise at least one unsettling question: If she considers the Toledo Rockets to be a tough team, what are the real expectations that lay ahead, particularly when the Cats run out of non-conference opponents and have to begin play in one of the toughest conferences in the country?
Based on the stats, the two teams were pretty evenly matched. Both shot 40 per cent from the field, Arizona’s 16 turnovers were just one more than those committed by Toledo, and the Rockets held a slight rebounding advantage, 35-32.
For Butts, who is beginning her eighth season as head coach, this has to be considered the most important during her time in Tucson. Her contract expires at the end of the season. Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne has continued to show patience – to a fault, perhaps. But only a wildly successful season will bring a new contract.
Expectations were high last year, when Butts was welcoming a top-25 recruiting class. That team finished 10-20 and was a first-round casualty in the Pac-12 Tournament, losing to UCLA by 18 points.
This season also holds out hope since the 2015-16 roster is experienced; 11 players return from last season.
Taryn Griffey provided a ray of hope in the Toledo game, scoring a game-high 18 points, canning six of her nine shots from behind the arc. The redshirt freshman was making her collegiate debut.
It was a Griffey three-pointer that gave the Cats a 49-48 lead as the fourth quarter opened, a lead they managed to hold the remainder of the way. Two other players squeezed into double figures, as Workman and Malena Washington each scored 10.
But 62 points against a MAC team and a three-point win isn’t going to instill a lot of confidence in Wildcat Nation.
And won’t do much to boost ticket sales for Wednesday’s home game against Howard University…who?
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)