When Adia Barnes was hired as the head coach of Arizona women’s basketball in 2016, she had high hopes for the future.
“I believe we can compete for championships in the Pac-12 and nationally, and I can't wait to return to Tucson and get started,” she said at the time.
It wasn’t going to be easy, though.
UA women's hoops wasn’t exactly a program that was on the up-and-up. They hadn’t had a winning season since 2010, and in those five seasons after, they made it out of the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament twice, losing their next game in both of those years. They hadn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2005.
Barnes, however, saw something in her alma mater that not too many people saw. After losing seasons in her first two campaigns, the Wildcats are guaranteed a winning record this season in just year number three under Barnes.
This comes as a rather quick turnaround, especially when you consider that the season before, the Wildcats won just six games.
In postgame pressers and interviews, Barnes is always quick to praise her team, the program and the progress it has made. She’s even quicker to point out there is still a long way to go.
“I do know this program has came a long way, and I’m so proud of our players, I really am proud, on the court, off the court,” Barnes said. “But I know that they are capable of doing more, I know that we are capable of going to that next level.”
That type of drive and determination is one of the reasons why then-athletic director Greg Byrne thought Barnes would a great fit.
“We believe Adia's combination of experience and energy, along with her understanding of this athletics department, made her the perfect fit to lead our women's basketball program into its next phase,” Byrne said in 2016.
One of the biggest reasons for the turnaround has been Barnes' recruiting prowess. At the University of Washington, Barnes was the recruiting coordinator, bringing in Aari McDonald, who transferred to Arizona after her freshman season and is currently the second leading scorer in the nation.
Barnes was also able to recruit the program’s first McDonald’s All-American, Cate Reese, who, in her first collegiate season, is about three rebounds per game short of averaging a double-double.
Reese and McDonald have been very big parts of the success for Arizona this year, but another key part has been the development of players already on the team. Sam Thomas, who had an impressive freshman season, has only gotten better in her sophomore campaign. Dominique McBryde, who sat out her junior season after transferring from Purdue, has been lauded by Barnes for both her leadership and defensive presence.
The defensive presence in general has improved for the Wildcats. On the season, opponents are shooting 38 percent from the field, 31 percent from three point range. The ‘Cats average 8.6 steals per game, and have 95 blocks on the season.
Just one year after a season where they won a grand total of six games, the Wildcats are in contention for a postseason berth, whether that be in the NCAA Tournament or the National Invitation Tournament.
With a strong recruiting class set for next season, the ‘Cats seem to be a program on the rise.
Follow Noah Auclair on Twitter