Michelle Smith Feature: UA's Aari McDonald makes the Wildcats significantly better
When the story is told about how the Arizona women’s basketball program, under the guidance of one of the greatest players in program history, re-established itself as a power in the Pac-12, one of the first chapters may well end up being dedicated to Aarion McDonald.
“Aari” McDonald is establishing herself, in the early weeks of the 2018-19 season, as an offensive force, the kind of player who could vault the Wildcats back into postseason contention in the Pac-12. Wildcats coach Adia Barnes is already calling McDonald “one of the best guards in the league.”
McDonald, meanwhile, view things her own way.
“My goal is to take this program someplace it has never been,” McDonald said. “I’m just trying to improve every day.”
Through four games, McDonald, a redshirt sophomore, is averaging a NCAA-leading 29.5 points a game.
In a year where the Wildcats have seven new players - three transfers and four highly-touted freshmen - McDonald said she wants to lead, in the box score and in the huddle. She’s already leading in the box score.
“I am trying to get out of my comfort zone and become a more vocal leader, and I just want to be that person (who steps up) when the going gets tough,” McDonald said. “I want to be the person that rallies my team through the storm and puts points on the board and helps my teammates in any way I can.”
McDonald was a freshman at Washington with Barnes (an assistant under then-head coach Mike Neighbors) and at the end of the 2016 season, Barnes departed to take her first head coaching job at Arizona, her alma mater and the place where she became the program’s leading scorer. McDonald, who has known Barnes since she began recruiting her as a high school sophomore out of Fresno, Calif., followed Barnes south to Tucson.
“It was a little closer to home, Arizona had my major and I felt like I would be taken care of here,” McDonald said. She said she wanted to play for Barnes in the place where Barnes had succeeded in her own college career and is something of a campus legend.
Last year, because of NCAA transfer rules, McDonald sat out and watched as the Wildcats made small, but visible improvements on the floor, while undergoing a significant culture change off of it. She called sitting out last season, “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”
And now it’s her turn to change the Wildcats’ fortunes. There is nothing small about McDonald’s contributions so far.
In her second game as a Wildcat, McDonald put up 39 points against Loyola Marymount, tying a school record set by Davellyn Whyte in 2010 and surpassing Barnes own record of 35 from back in 1997.
She followed up Sunday with a 32-point game against Portland, a game which pushed Arizona’s record to 3-1 and gave them their biggest single-game scoring output (92) since 2013. She was named Pac-12 Player of the Week following those performances, the first Wildcat to earn the recognition since 2015.
“You can’t teach quickness,” Barnes said. “I think she is special because she is a great player, not only on offense, but on defense. We’ve changed our defense to fit her. She’s our catalyst. She controls everything.”
Including getting Arizona’s batch of newcomers acclimated to a higher level of play.
“What I love is that she’s unselfish,” Barnes said. “She can blow by someone at any given time... She wants to win. She hasn’t reached her potential yet and once she learns what that is, she is going to be unstoppable.”
McDonald said she spent the offseason preparing for her Arizona debut working on her balance, her shot and her footwork.
“If somebody knocks me over, making sure that I don’t fall,” McDonald said. “And I worked on being crafty, worked on moves.”
McDonald said she wants to create “havoc” on the defensive end as well.
“I want to get six steals a game, so hopefully, I can do that.”
Barnes joked that she spent much of last season watching McDonald dominate her practices, wishing she could put her out on the floor. Now she has that chance. And it’s paying off already.
“She makes us significantly better, now we have to put the pieces around her,” Barnes said. “She’s a great teammate, steady, loyal, no drama. She’s a relationship kid and she values that.”
McDonald said her expectations are high, for a team picked to finish 10th in the conference race. She is looking to do a whole lot better than that.
“I think we expect that we are going to do well and we are going to surprise people,” McDonald said.
Michelle Smith is a contributing writer for pac-12.com. She has covered pro and college sports for espnW, the San Francisco Chronicle and AOL Fanhouse. For previous Michelle Smith features on pac-12.com, visit the archives page.