Free-flowing offensive philosophy makes Wildcats among nation's top-scoring teams

Arizona’s offense has been explosive so far this season.

The 14th-ranked Wildcats are averaging 90 points a game, a figure that ranks fifth in the nation and just ahead of teams like UConn, Indiana and Notre Dame.

They’re doing it behind a new offensive philosophy. Coach Adia Barnes isn’t calling in a lot plays from the sidelines this season, and that’s by design.

The Wildcats instead read what the defense is giving them and run the offense based on that. Barnes’ simple approach is part due to the Wildcats’ roster, which includes seven new players are only a few who have played meaningful minutes in the system. Arizon (6-0) takes its potent offense to New Mexico (4-3) on Sunday afternoon.

“Working with what you have, I think that’s what coaches should do,” Barnes said. “I just go with whatever the team needs. Instead of bombarding them 10 offensives, it’s better to do two or three really well … we’re scoring (90) points not even running a ton of fancy stuff.”

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Five UA players are averaging 11 or more points per game: Shaina Pellington (14.8); Esmery Martinez (13.7); Kailyn Gilbert (12); Cate Reese and Jade Loville (11.2). Maya Nnaji is nearly there with 9.2 points per game. All but Pellington and Reese are new this season.

Barnes has always run a pro-style offense that gives the Wildcats freedom. Two years ago, the UA rode an Aari McDonald-led offensive attack all the way to their first Final Four.

This year’s offense allows even more freedom, says McDonald, who is in her first year the Wildcats’ director of recruiting operations.

“You do what you want,” she said. “Coach Adia doesn’t like to call plays as much. It’s up to you, off the reads — either you are isolating yourself or someone. It’s not hard, but she honestly wants you to really think the game through.”

McDonald learned how to read and attack defenses while at the UA, and the skill has served her well in the WNBA. She just finished her second season with the Atlanta Dream. Barnes gave McDonald plenty of offensive freedom, trusting that her speed and the basketball IQs of Dominique McBryde and Sam Thomas would lead to the right decisions.

Now Barnes is again showing her growth and flexibility as a young coach.

“She wants to make sure all her players are successful, and that they’re displaying their abilities within the offense,” McDonald said. “Everyone can eat within this offense; they can get theirs. That’s what she really wants.”

McDonald, who watches a lot of women’s games, added that she has not seen a team that is “pretty much just playing and putting up points like this.”

More freedom has been a good thing for senior Helena Pueyo, who is coming off an efficient 22-point performance against USD last week. The senior from Spain shot 9 of 12 from the field in place of the injured Shaina Pellington (ankle), hitting all three of her 3-point attempts.

Pueyo leads the Pac-12 with 72.4% shooting, and has played a solid point guard. The 6-foot-tall Pueyo has excellent vision of the court, knows the tendencies of her teammates and can anticipate what’s next. She has 15 assists in six games; she had 70 after 29 games last season.

Pueyo said the UA’s offense is similar to the free-flowing attack of the Spanish National Team, where she is a contributor.

“The best part is playing free. You just do what you know,” Pueyo said. “It’s more fun. We’re more talented. We show on the court that we have better ball movement. … I don’t think we need many plays because we are very talented. Everybody can score. If there is a broken play, we can just go. It’s much easier now.”

McDonald almost wishes she was still out there wearing a UA uniform playing with Pueyo and the other Wildcats. In this system, she said she would have more assists and would take fewer last-second, step-back 3s.

“There is no ceiling for them,” McDonald said. “It’s amazing. They are so crafty. Once they get the plays down and they put more offense in — get more intentional to what and who they are running a play for — they are going to be deadly. …

“I already think it’s a really good team. It’s probably one of the best teams Coach Adia has ever had. Once they find the continuity, they get to know each other and are more familiar with each other’s tendencies and they get the defense right. They’re going to be scary.”

Contact sports reporter PJ Brown at pjbrown@tucson.com. On Twitter: @PJBrown09


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