Adia Barnes did not make a particularly impressive debut last year as the new University of Arizona head women’s basketball coach. Her first season ended with a 14-16 overall record, just five conference wins, and a loss in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
But she’s managed to recover nicely.
This year’s squad is off to a good start, winning both exhibition games and beating Iona 71-58 last Friday in the first game on the 2017-18 schedule. But that’s not what is getting everyone’s attention.
Barnes, who became the leading scorer in program history during her collegiate career at Arizona, just proved she can recruit as well as she could play the game. Her 2018 recruiting class has been ranked by ProspectsNation.com as the fourth-best in the country, making it the highest-ranked class in program history.
And she did it without many arrows in her quiver, so to speak. She had great facilities to use as a recruiting tool, but little proof to offer that Arizona produces winning teams. At least not since hall-of-fame coach Joan Bonvicini led the program to national prominence back in the ’90s and into early 2000.
The Wildcats have posted just one winning season in the last 12 years. Try selling that to a 5-star prospect.
And Barnes can’t point to her previous success as a head coach…because there isn’t any. It’s always particularly helpful to offer those results as proof you can turn around a program on life support. But this is her first gig as a head coach. Her only other coaching experience was as an assistant at University of Washington, which gave her a few props since the Huskies posted 20-win seasons during her time there and made it to a Final Four
Barnes took over as recruiting coordinator in her last two seasons at Washington – and obviously learned something in that job, traits she brought to Tucson to use on the recruiting there. But luring top talent to a dormant program in the desert was nothing like recruiting to a winning program in Seattle. Here, her sales skills have really been put to the test.
But what undoubtedly made the job a little easier was having the cred that comes with being a professional player. Barnes spent 12 years in the WNBA. That means a lot to potential recruits who like the idea of being coached by a former pro player, even if they were too young to remember seeing her play.
Barnes collected five National Letters of Intent last week that included three 5-star post players. Faced with a roster that needed some size, the coaching staff concentrated their efforts on bringing aboard some additional post players for next year.
The crown jewel of the 2018 class is Cate Reese, a five-star prospect ranked No. 14 overall in the country and fourth-best post player (ESPN) who averaged 22.3 points and 13.2 rebounds a game last season. The 6’3″ forward from Texas is the highest-ranked prospect in program history.
But she will be joined by a couple of other bigs who may be just as talented. Semaj Smith is a 5-star recruit from California who stands 6’5″, and Valeria Trucco will arrive from Italy where the 6’4″ forward is among that country’s top young players. Smith is from California and ranked as the No. 9 post player in the country by ESPN and No. 52 overall, while Trucco has been building her game by playing with the Italian National Teams, where she won a silver medal in the World Championships as a member of the U17 team.
Shalyse Smith, the first in the group to commit to the Cats, is a four-star forward from Washington who is ranked No. 7 in the country at her position and No. 48 overall, while Bryce Nixon is the only signee so far in the back court.
Nixon is also the only local recruit. The four-star guard is a native of Phoenix who attended Arcadia High School, where she was named to the D-II All-Arizona First Team after averaging 20 points, five assists, and four rebounds a game for the Titans last season. She scored in double figures in every game to lead Arcadia to a 26-3 record and a quarterfinal finish in the state tournament.
Barnes is particularly pleased to be able to add a local player to her roster. “In the past, a lot of great players left the state of Arizona, and it’s important to keep them home,” she explained when announcing her latest class. “I have had a long relationship with Bryce and when I came to Arizona she was at the top of my list.”
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)