The Arizona Wildcats women's basketball team, coming off an NIT championship that thrilled the city and filled McKale Center, were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 preseason coaches' poll.
"This is going to be the best year for Pac-12 women's basketball. I'm fired up," UA coach Adia Barnes said at women's basketball media day on Monday. "We all say we're excited, so I'm very excited. But I think that there's so much parity in the league right now, I think it's going to be a great year for the best conference in the country."
Barnes brought with her to media day junior guard Aari McDonald, the nation's leading returning scorer at 24.1 points per game, and senior forward Tee Tee Starks.
Here are some of the highlights from their Q&A session:
Q. Can you reflect on the NIT run and kind of all of it, the things you did to promote the program and get people into the gym? Was it more than you even thought it could be?
ADIA BARNES: It was a lot more than I thought. You know, a lot of people asked me was I disappointed because we didn't make the tournament. I mean, of course you are. You always want to make the tournament. But it was the absolute best thing for our program and where we're at. I mean, going to the NIT, playing six games, ending the season with a win, having momentum carry over to this year, it was the best thing.
I think one of the most rewarding things was seeing how the city just gravitated towards it. They were hungry for excitement with women's basketball, and the crowd just grew every single game. It was fun. We weren't focused on the crowd. People were like, oh, you were marketing, you were doing this and that. No, I was having fun and it doesn't take a lot to tweet, so thank goodness for social media and you guys because it was easy. That was the easy part. It was fun, and we all believed in our room, we believed that we could win, so we were on a mission to win. Like I said, there was two teams that were happy at the end of the year, it was us and Baylor, so that was a pretty good situation to be in.
AARI MCDONALD: Definitely the NIT run was an amazing experience for us like Coach said. We were on a mission, and by that part of the season everyone was bought into what Coach was saying and we played for each other and we came out victorious.
TEE TEE STARKS: It was fun. There was no other way to explain it but it was fun. It was great to see the whole team just kind of come together and finish strong. People would always tell us that we were a totally different team in the NIT championship than what we started with. It was great to see us grow and finish strong.
Q. Coach, you're always so positive. You have this big smile on your face all the time. It up lifts me personally, and I just want to know, what's your secret?
ADIA BARNES: Well, I'm getting gray hair, so that's not a great thing. But no, I just think that -- I'm definitely a positive person. I think that there's challenges, there's adversity. We all have it. And I think that part of being a role model and being a professional is taking care of your business.
How could I not smile? I go to work every day, I get to wear sweats, I don't have to wear heels every day. I wear sweats and I mentor young women and I coach basketball. So for me, that's a blessing, and there's nothing to take for granted because one day I probably will get fired. Everybody gets fired in this profession.
But I think that I'm in a great situation helping young women, and I think for me that's something to always smile about. Yes, are there highs and lows, yes, but there are in every progression. I'm coaching at my alma mater, I'm doing what I love, I'm in a game that has changed my life, and I'm still part of this game. So I mean, I'm going to smile for a long time because of that. For me, I'm where I want to be. I'm in the right place. I'm at the right place, and I think the timing is right for everything. I think everything happens for a reason.
Q. I want to know what's going to inspire you to take it to the next level next season because I know that's a goal.
AARI McDONALD: I would say just -- I'll reflect back on last season. I know that the NIT, like we weren't satisfied, so just winning that will make myself and my teammates hungrier for this year, and we're hoping for better things.
TEE TEE STARKS: We spoke earlier, but, honestly, I think about how close we were to getting into the NCAA Tournament. We were a couple games from getting in, so I think just having those experiences and being able to implement them into this year and kind of handle those situations better, I think we'll be able to accomplish those goals.
Q. Aari, what did you work on this summer to make you even more dangerous this year?
AARI McDONALD: I've been working on my jump shot, just making sure I have a consistent jump shot and just making sure I have like a better shot selection, and like knowing when to push tempo, when to slow down.
Q. Tee Tee, what was behind your decision to stay at Arizona?
ADIA BARNES: Besides me getting the crowd to say one more and having the people carry the ones. That was like part of behind the scenes, so that was an influence a little bit, I'm sure.
TEE TEE STARKS: Yeah, she definitely embarrassed me a little bit. But Coach Adia talked about all the things that we could do this year. I talked it over with my family. I have a really big support system back at home, and this was a decision that I couldn't make on my own. So I relied on the people that I trust, my family, my mom, and we kind of just went with the best decision for me, and that was to be here.
Q. Coach, you look at tremendous talent coming back, and then a really eclectic unique incoming class, kids from all over the world. It would appear from the outside looking in that with great veterans coming back, the freshmen or the incoming class doesn't have to be great right away. Can you massage it a little bit as they learn the ropes of D-I basketball in America?
ADIA BARNES: Yeah, so it's a big cultural transition for a lot of those players. But the returners have to be great right away, and that's their job is to be role models, and their job is to bring the freshmen along. We have seven new players. There is a little bit of language barrier, but I think that's what makes it so special. We're a special group with a lot of different people, and I think that makes them culturally more diverse and more well-rounded.
So I think things will be a little bit slower because there are so many new people. But with everybody back from last year, all the starters back, I think that it's easier for those freshmen not to have pressure to be so great.
The other thing is we have a lot more depth, and I think we're more talented this year. So just shooting the ball a little bit better, not having to play players 37 minutes. So I think efficiency-wise they'll be a little more efficient. I think sometimes there is a little bit -- practices can be a little bit longer because you have to kind of back-brief a little bit more and talk a little bit more behind the scenes. But I think the one thing it has helped us with a lot is communication, and that's been something we have to work on. And we're not going to get better until we worked on that, so this is a great way to work on that because we have no choice but to do it.
It's funny because it feels so different in practice because having like 11 healthy people last year, now 15, it's like there's no room to run a sprint on the baseline. It feels different. It looks like we have a lot of people, but I'm excited there's 14 eligible players this year. One is sitting out, but I'm excited. I'm excited, too, because they're excited. They've had some success, and the level has been raised. And now the freshmen, we expect more from the freshmen coming in. They can't just say, oh, we're freshmen. They've got to come along faster.
Q. What's it like with expectations higher on your program, period, after what you did last year? Folks are looking at you with a little bit more of a target on your backs.
ADIA BARNES: Yeah, I don't really pay attention to a lot of that stuff. I'm not saying every day we need to make the tournament. That's what we want and that's the ultimate goal, but I believe in getting 1 percent better every day. So every day we're doing our best and we're getting a little bit better. We talk one more, so what's your one more today? That's my one more as a coach, and holding me accountable for that. And I think that by us doing all that and having the small victories, the big things will take care of themselves. I don't feel like there's pressure. I think the climb is the fun part. I think there's a lot more pressure when you're No. 1 and you have to finish No. 1.
Yeah, we're picked sixth, but that doesn't mean a whole lot to me because we've got to go out and play and do better. If I talk to this group, they don't expect to finish sixth. They want to do more, so that's what I love about them. So I am willing to do whatever it takes to help them reach their goals and aspirations.
But really big on little victories and 1 percent better every single day.
Q. Do you feel like being picked sixth is reflective of where you're at, especially after a couple years ago you were picked 11th and 10th?
ADIA BARNES: Yeah, I think it's a lot easier when you're picked 11th and 10th because if you go up one spot, it's a great season. I don't really get into a lot of that stuff because, regardless of where you're picked, you've got to still go out -- this is the best conference in the country. You've got to still go out and play. And I think whether you're picked second or fourth or 12th, there's really good teams. And I don't think you can take anybody lightly and we have a pretty tough Pac-12 schedule. So I don't really look at that, but I know where we need to be to try to make the tournament. And to be honest our goal is to make the tournament. Yes, winning the WNIT was fabulous, but now we want more, and you always want more after you've had some success. So if we went to another WNIT, it probably wouldn't be a great year for us in our minds and how we feel.
You know, our league is competitive, so we just have to do our best and get better every single game, and I think everything else will take care of itself.