Adia Barnes’ honest approach pushes No. 7 Arizona upward

FILE – Arizona head coach Adia Barnes speaks to her team during a time out in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Northern Arizona, on Dec. 17, 2021, in Flagstaff, Ariz. Barnes’ feathery touch has reconstructed her alma mater from the rubble at the bottom of the Pac-12 to a national powerhouse. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Honesty can be wielded as a weapon in the wrong hands.

Blunted, it crushes confidence, the granules forming a foundation of resentment. Twisted, it creates jagged edges undercutting authority, slicing through trust.

Adia Barnes brandishes honesty like a feather, sharp enough at the tip to make a point, soft around the edges to soothe the ego.

“She’s a real straightforward person and is going to tell you exactly what she thinks and what needs to be done,” Arizona athletic director Dave Heeke said. “But what I like is she does it from a positive position. Always.”

Barnes’ touch has helped her rebuild her alma mater from the rubble of the Pac-12 basement into a national powerhouse.

As a player, Barnes was a mix of talent and grit, skilled enough to beat you with the ball, willing to knock you on your butt if she couldn’t.

She carried those same traits back to Tucson after a seven-year stint in the WNBA, taking over a program that had fallen into disarray since she left. Arizona had five straight losing seasons before Barnes was hired in 2016, winning no more than four Pac-12 games in each.

Barnes retooled the roster with an eye on quickly guiding the program back to prominence.

The Wildcats built momentum — within the program and around Tucson — by winning the 2019 WNIT and took a huge leap forward with a run to the 2021 national championship game. They came one last-second shot short of the title against Stanford, but gave a nation of basketball fans and beyond a glimpse into a program molded in the never-back-down image of its coach.

“We were the team that wasn’t as good and just found a way and fought,” Barnes said. “I think America fell in love with how hard we played and how much fight we had.”

Barnes reset the foundation with an aura of positive authenticity.

Recruits feel it when Barnes is in their homes, pulling them toward the desert. No counterfeit assurances of grandeur. Only candid assessments of the program and where the recruits fit into the blueprint.

Barnes found the right pieces to get the machine moving forward the first few years, The addition of Aari McDonald, a 2021 All-American now with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, was a huge boost and the top recruits have kept flowing into Tucson.

The 2022 recruiting class, headlined by five-star forward Maya Nnaji, is the best in school history.

“At the end of the day, if you want to have a relationship with real people, true people, they want to know the truth even if the truth is not what they want to hear,” said Salvo Coppa, Barnes’ husband and assistant coach. “This is who you get attracted to and that’s what she does.”

Barnes’ constructive assessments and enthusiasm push players to stretch the limits of their effort and ability. Arizona (11-1, 1-1 Pac-12) reached last year’s championship game through grit and determination. This year’s team climbed to No. 4 in the AP Top 25 — now No. 7 — despite being picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12.

Support for women’s basketball has skyrocketed in Tucson. Arizona averaged just over 1,800 fans in Barnes’s first season in 2016-17 and has steadily climbed. The Wildcats set a Pac-12 record with 14,644 fans in the WNIT title game and sold close to 6,000 season tickets this season. Average attendance is 7,083 over six home games.

Winning certainly plays a role. Barnes has been a part of the allure as well, her infectious personality pulling fans toward Arizona’s McKale Center.

“She is a connector. She’s just a great person to be around,” Heeke said. “You feel very engaged and connected with her. She is a person that people like to be around.”

Even working mothers.

Barnes gave birth to daughter Capri, her second child with Cappa, just before the start of the 2020-21 season. The couple quietly navigated the world of raising a child while trying to run a basketball program without much fanfare.

The NCAA Tournament shined a light on the juggling act as the rest of the world learned she was pumping breast milk throughout the run, even at halftime of the championship game.

Barnes received thousands of messages after the season and became a regular on the non-sports talk-show circuit, openly talking about the difficulties of trying to balance work and motherhood.

“I wasn’t even aware until all of this recognition and news just how hard it is because I’ve never worked a job where I couldn’t pump or I couldn’t just bring my kid. I just did it,” she said. “I was oblivious to all this stuff. I was like wait, you can’t do this? I was kind of shocked and of course I was going to speak about if you can’t do it. I wouldn’t not be able to do it.”

Honest to the core.

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