PHOENIX — The University of Arizona’s women’s basketball team has the credentials, a fine recruiting class and a long pedigree of success. Now it’s lured one of the program’s most treasured players into rejoining the team.
The team is on the rise entering the 2022 season, and they just added even more to their arsenal after naming former Wildcat star Aari McDonald the Director of Recruiting.
McDonald averaged 21.9 points per game, which is the highest career average in Arizona history, from 2018 to 2021 for the Wildcats. She also led Arizona to the 2021 national championship game in her senior season. Her performance in the NCAA tournament, as well as her numerous accolades, including 2021 Pac-12 Player of the Year honors, led to the Atlanta Fever selecting her third overall in the 2021 WNBA draft.
“I don’t think I’ve met a better recruiter (for our program) than Aari,” coach Adia Barnes said. “And our players are really excited because they can learn from her.”
To this point, McDonald said, “I’ve done great things under coach Barnes and I think that I could really sell the school and have kids commit to coach Barnes and the program, so I’m really excited.”
Her duties will include “overseeing all recruiting logistics, assisting with on-campus visits, managing recruit information as well as social media content. She will serve on staff while fulfilling her WNBA commitments with the Atlanta Dream,” according to the team’s press release.
The Wildcats’ 2022 recruiting class featured two five-star commits and two more ESPN top 100 players who will debut in the red and blue this season. Barnes and staff also already have three more five-star players committed for 2023.
Barnes said Aari’s pro experience and the lessons she’s learned will inspire her current and incoming players to “give more and do more.”
“She can say, ‘Hey, this is my hardest thing in the pros and when she’s saying that to (freshmen) Kailyn Gilbert or Paris (Clark) or Maya (Nnaji), they are going to listen a lot more than like me saying it,” Barnes said.
Last season, the Wildcats finished 21-8, which earned them a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. However, they could not replicate the 2021 tournament run, falling in the Round of 32 to North Carolina.
The Wildcats retained five players from the 2021-22 roster heading into this season but lost several key contributors, including Sam Thomas, who was recently named to the WNBA All-Rookie Team. One returning player who McDonald knows well is fifth-year forward Cate Reese, who was at Arizona for McDonald’s entire playing career.
“I think on my first day I came, Cate was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” McDonald said. “And I didn’t want to tell anybody just yet, so I was just like, ‘Oh, I’m just visiting. I’m here for a little bit.’ And she said, ‘Oh okay,’ and then when it came out, she was like, ‘You’re really here Aari?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah!’ So, Cate is excited to have me back as well.”
Before 2021, the women’s basketball program went through a dry spell, failing to make the NCAA tournament since the 2004-05 season. However, after the Wildcats won the NIT tournament in 2019, a fire was lit that has yet to be extinguished as the team looks to establish itself among the top in the country every year. Securing arguably their top player ever to return – albeit on the sidelines – certainly helps their cause.
“I’m excited to be back in the place where I call my second home,” McDonald said. “I just want to thank coach Barnes, coach (Dave) Heeke (Arizona athletic director) and just the whole athletic department for giving me a chance and letting me come back to my alma mater.”
Barnes has always wanted McDonald to come back but wanted her to first try playing overseas. She had a short stint in Hungary after her first WNBA season, but she decided playing overseas was not for her. Barnes was eventually able to convince McDonald to join her staff, and she now also has access to the Arizona facilities to help her train in the offseason. Barnes hopes that learning how to coach will set up a career path for McDonald after her professional playing career ends.
“[I’m] super excited to welcome Aari back with open arms,” Barnes said. “I think this is great for Tucson, great for U of A and, I think, a great platform for Aari.”