Butts looks to re-establish positive momentum at Arizona
Two down years fuel Butts' determination to rebuild positive momentum for Arizona women.
By STEVE RIVERAFS Arizona
TUCSON, Ariz. -- It was more than 5 ½ years ago when Niya Butts wanted to jump on tables and do cartwheels. She was so excited about becoming the new Arizona women's basketball coach she would have done about anything to show her appreciation.
On Thursday, short of a cartwheel, she was shaking hands with the media and giving hugs to some of her followers.
If there are two things Butts, 35, has not lost, they are her energy and her enthusiasm for a job she truly enjoys. The tough part is the losing, especially for a former star at Tennessee, where losing came as frequently as a Tucson snowstorm.
How does a winner deal with losing?
Butts gave a look that all but said, "the question is rhetorical, right?"
The obvious answer is, well, you get better.
"The one thing that (losing) teaches you when you are rebuilding and you're trying to get things going is that you have to be patient," said Butts at the annual women's basketball media day. "You have to understand there's going to be bumps in the road. What we're looking forward to is making sure we take advantage of every opportunity on the floor."
Like the point guard that she was during her playing days, she'll look at every angle and every move as she tries to re-establish momentum that has stalled over the past two years. The Wildcats lose star guard Davellyn Whyte but have a a good group of veterans and healthy Candice Warthen, who Butts believes would have made a world of difference the last two years had she not been injured.
Warthen, now a redshirt junior, and Whyte would have been a potentially deadly backourt combination. Together, back in 2010-11, they were key contributors to Butts' finest season, when Arizona went 21-12 and earned a berth in the WNIT.
Butts was rewarded with a contract extension through 2016 because of it. She looked well on her way to a promising head coaching career.
Then came the last two years of 15-17 and 12-18. Like today's economy, it's a fluid situation of good and bad -- depends on the day.
As is the case at the end of every year, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne and Butts talked.
"We spoke about improvement in our overall performance competitively," said Byrne of last season's end-of-the-year meeting. "We've made some strides but may have taken a step back last year. Hopefully we get back on that track, getting us back to being in the postseason."
Butts did some self-evaluation, taking a trip to San Antonio to get tips from the WNBA's Silver Stars coaching staff. (Whyte is a member of the team).
"You always have to make sure you are challenging yourself," she said.
She came back with fresh ideas and confirmation she was doing some of the same, solid drills.
But it still about winning. "At the end of the day you're measured by your success off and on the court," she admits.
Pressure? It's not anything different than she puts on herself, she said. Byrne said that, too, knowing the competitor she is.
"It's an important season not from a Greg perspective, but from a Coach Butts perspective," she said. "I'm so competitive. I want to win, and I want to win now. No amount of fans or administration can place pressure on me that's not any greater that I put on myself. I have great support here. I don't even feel that comes into play."
Byrne wants Butts to succeed. He wants a winner.
"We want to compete for championships, and women's basketball has never consistently done that here," Byrne said. "Many times where the men's basketball program has had success, the women's programs do too. We want to continue to move the program forward and get better.
"I really like Niya a lot. She knows I want her to be our coach for many years to come."
Winning will solve that. It's that simple.
"I don't think there is another way to fix it other than winning," said Warthen. "We have to win for her to continue to build the program and to try to make Arizona good."
The top returning scorer is senior center Kama Griffitts, who averaged 10.6 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. Three other seniors return, and they're joined by what Butts believes is a solid recruiting class.
"When you lose someone who scores as well as she (Whyte) can score, it's challenging," Butts said. "(But) we feel pretty good about the cast we have here. The one thing I do know is that you don't go out and try to replace someone of that ability in one person. The group is up for that challenge.
She added: "Experience is our best teacher. We are going to lean on that, especially early. The young guys will have to grow up fast, though. We feel like everybody on roster has the ability to help and contribute."