By Craig Sanders
Arizona Daily Wildcat
"Putting the pieces together" Ÿ Arizona's motto has never been more accurate than for this year's group of Wildcat women's basketball players.
In a team filled with guard/forwards and forward/centers, the Wildcats will be working hard this season to find their identity. With the annual women's basketball media day officially kicking off the season yesterday, players and coaches alike said they believe this could be a turnaround season for Arizona.
"I think obviously we want to get to the (NCAA) tournament," head coach Joan Bonvicini said. "And is that realistic? I think if we have a good nonconference season this team is going to have a lot of confidence and play well. It's been a great preseason and we want to make this a great season."
Molding a group of talented players into a cohesive, winning unit in one of the nation's toughest conferences is something Bonvicini will be trying to accomplish as she enters her fifth season with the Wildcats. It is a puzzle she said she is looking forward to trying to solve, yet at this point there may be more questions than answers.
How much will last season's freshman class improve? Who will step up to supplement the scoring of Adia Barnes, last season's Pacific 10 Conference freshman of the year? Who will bring the consistency in scoring and rebounding that the center position needs?
One question that will need to be answered right away is, who are the starters? So far, they're senior point guard Brenda Pantoja, power forward Barnes, small forward Mikko Giordano and shooting guard DeAngela Minter. Sophomore center Marte Alexander may be the fifth starter.
Sophomore Fatima Imara will likely play a key backup role at one of the forward spots. Of last season's six freshmen, only forward Keisha Johnson, who is now on the Arizona volleyball team, did not return.
Bonvicini said the maturity of her young team will help make this season successful.
"I think the biggest thing is that we are still young," Bonvicini said. "We only have three upperclassmen, but a lot of our young players had playing time a year ago. I think we've made a preseason schedule in which every game is win-able. I think the most important thing early is confidence."
"We all grew so much from our freshman year to now," Barnes said. "We all played so much and are all more mature than a normal freshman would be."
Arizona is looking for scoring and will hope to find it in Giordano, Minter and one of the many who are attempting to solidify a spot at the center position. Lost to graduation were shooting guard Jacinda Sweet's 12 points per game and forward Atina Harris' eight points per game. Fortunately, Arizona does return its leading scorer in Barnes, who average 15 points per game last season.
"I think it is important that our players step up," Bonvicini said. "Our big improvement will be decision-making and getting better scoring, especially from our post position."
Several players are vying for time in the paint. Senior Andrea Constand, junior Jacqueline Clark, Alexander and Imara are all in contention for the starting spot. Bonvicini said Constand is looking forward to stepping things up in her senior season. Imara is said to have made great strides during the offseason and will likely be playing backup at the post position. Alexander has the starting spot but has not shown consistency yet .
"I want to get more production point-wise and rebound-wise and defensively," Bonvicini said. "I want more consistency. I started Marte Alexander Sunday (in the Red-Blue game) and thought that she was inconsistent."
The key to Arizona's season may be Pantoja. She led last season's team in assists and may be the glue holding this young group together. Pantoja said she believes this season's Wildcat team can be successful.
"We want to go out and try to win every game," she said. "If we get to the Tournament, that's great. I think that is everyone's goal. We can compete if we can go into the Pac-10 and beat the teams we are supposed to beat. I think we have a chance of finally making the Tournament."
Three newcomers will have a chance to propel Arizona into the Tournament. Incoming freshmen guards Monika Crank and Lisa Griffith and center Shontey Hambrick are all joining the team. Bonvicini said each of these players can offer contributions this season, especially Hambrick. Griffith and Crank are both good shooters and passers.
Griffith is on an accelerated rehabilitation program after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in her senior year in high school. She participates to a limited extent in practice, and a decision on if she can play will be made in four to six weeks. Crank is from Page, and is Bonvicini's first in-state recruit.
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