Today’s game between the University of Arizona and Washington State women’s basketball teams will be bathed in emotion as Arizona’s only senior, Keyahndra Cannon, steps on the floor to play her final home game after starting at guard for all 27 games this season.
Senior Day is always filled with emotion, no matter how many players are facing graduation.
But this time there will undoubtedly be more drama than usual. This time, the final home game will likely be the last time the Wildcats’ head coach, Niya Butts, will take the floor in McKale Center.
And the players have to be aware of that.
(*Update: On March 1, UofA Athletic Director Grey Byrne announced that Butts would not be returning for the 2016-17 season. He said a national search would begin immediately.)
The Wildcats lost by 22 points to Washington on Friday night, extending their latest losing streak to nine games. They’ve won just once in their last 13 outings and after today’s game have just two road games left on the schedule.
Normally, that’s not enough to get a head coach fired. But in this case, it’s become a pattern over recent years.
The Cats are 2-13 in conference, barely staying ahead of the preseason polls that had projected a last-place finish; only Colorado, with one win, is sitting below them. Last season they won four conference games after adding a top-25 recruiting class to the line-up, won just one game the year before that, and four in 2012-13. They finished that ’12-13 season by losing 13 of the final 14 games.
Butts, who was hired away from Kentucky where she was an assistant coach for five years, won 20 games (21-12) in her third season in Tucson. But that has turned out to be the only winning record she has posted in eight seasons directing the program.
She has generally done well in the non-conference part of the schedule, but her teams wilt when Pac-12 play begins. This season, with a roster of 11 returning players that included three starters, it looked like there was some hope for breaking the pattern.
Despite scoring just 34 points in losing the conference opener to Stanford, the Cats came storming back the next game to stun then-No. 19 California, beating the Golden Bears for the first time in 10 years.
By all accounts the Georgia native and former player at Tennessee is liked and respected by her players, is a solid role model, and works hard on the recruiting trail. But none of that has translated to winning seasons.
Butts replaced Joan Bonvicini after the 2007-08 season, when the hall-of-fame coach went through a down cycle of three straight losing seasons – after going undefeated in 2004-05. Bonvicini guided the program for 17 years, but was fired with a year still left on her contract after a 10-20 overall record and four conference wins. Ironically, that final season she became just the 18th coach to win 600 games at the Division I level.
The athletic director who fired her, Jim Livengood, is gone now, replaced by Greg Byrne in 2010. But it was Livengood that hired Butts before he departed.
Byrne has not been so quick on the trigger. If anything, he has been patient to a fault, giving Butts a chance to serve out her contract, which expires after this season.
If the basketball gods are smiling down on McKale Center this afternoon, the game against the Cougars is one that could be put in the ‘W’ column. Washington State is 12-14 overall, with four conference wins – which puts them in the Pac-12 cellar, just one rung above the Wildcats.
And they’re also on a nine-game losing skid. Not exactly the Battle of the Titans.
Going out on a win in front of a home crowd would be small compensation for the hard work that Butts has put in over eight seasons on the Wildcat bench.
So let the gods be in a good mood today…Go, Cats!
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)