Preseason polls: No respect for UA, ASU women’s basketball

The Pac-12 basketball coaches aren’t giving the Arizona women’s programs any love… or respect.

The University of Arizona, despite being the national runner-up last season, is projected for a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 Preseason Coaches Poll, which was released on Media Day last week.  And Arizona State fared even worse, getting slotted at No. 8 on the list.

ASU’s ranking can be blamed in part on last season’s 12-12 overall record and 6-9 mark in conference.  An early exit from the WNIT tournament only confirmed the team’s lack of experience and depth.

Last year’s ASU squad  was a very young team that was further hampered by injuries, most notably a season-ending injury to 6’1″ junior forward Jayde Van Hyfte, the team’s only returning starter from the 2019-20 season.

The 6’1″ forward is back this season for her senior year, and with her come five returning starters.  So the Devils will have the experience they lacked last year.

Leading the way offensively will be last year’s top two scorers, senior guard Taya Hanson (12.6 ppg) and sophomore guard Jaddan Simmons (10.8).

While ASU managed to average just 54 points a game last season, their defense was up to the task of making them competitive.  The defense last season held opponents to under 50 points in nine games.  That defensive effort returns this season, so there should be much better balance

The stats explain the hesitancy to rank the Sun Devils any higher in the preseason poll, but it’s a totally different issue that has relegated the Arizona Wildcats to a fifth-place prediction.  That slight can be explained in just two words:  Aari McDonald.

A high-octane All-American guard, McDonald led the team in scoring the last three years and literally put the team on her back to carry the Cats to the NCAA title contest with Stanford.  Arizona won 21 games and came within six seconds of winning its first national title when McDonald’s final shot with 6.1 seconds remaining missed the mark and the Cardinal took a hard-earned 54-53 win.

McDonald, who was taken by the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA draft, was one of just two players the team lost last season.  The other was forward Trinity Baptiste, who averaged 8.6 points and six rebounds a game.  Baptiste added to the team’s depth of talent, but, make no mistake, it’s McDonald who will be impossible to replace because her leadership will be missed just as much as her scoring.

Baptiste, who was drafted by the Indiana Fever, was third in scoring last season, but the Cats return the other two of the top four scorers, Cate Reese (10.9 ppg) and Sam Thomas (8.6).  It doesn’t take a master mathematician to be able to figure out how badly McDonald’s 21 points a game will be missed.

Head coach Adia Barnes has made a few additions to this season’s roster, hoping to take a “scoring by committee” approach without a big gun on the bench.  The one player likely to make the biggest impact is Vanderbilt transfer, Loi Love.

The six-foot forward should become a major addition to the scoring committee.  She played in all eight games during last year’s COVID-shortened season at Vanderbilt, nearly averaging a double-double with 20.8 points and 9.5 rebounds.  She will give the Cats some of the rebounding production of Baptiste and the scoring of McDonald.

Fans should get an early chance to size up their favorite team since ASU has six teams on its non-conference schedule that qualified for postseason play last year, and UofA will face off against four teams that earned NCAA Tournament berths.  Two of those four early match-ups, Louisville and Texas, made it to the Elite Eight.

So we should know, sooner rather than later, whether the Arizona teams deserve their poll rankings.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)