Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
After three seasons as Arizona's women's basketball coach, Niya Butts is 47-47. That's amazing. In the three seasons before Butts was hired, Arizona went 29-63.
That's what you call a good hire.
"In some cases, we may even be ahead of schedule," Butts said before leaving Staples Center on Friday afternoon. "We won 21 games. We finished in the top four of the Pac-10. We've had a heck of a season."
At 33, with only two full years of recruiting, Butts has put Arizona in position to challenge everybody except talent-rich Stanford in the Pac-10. And although the Wildcats lose the league's top scorer and rebounder, senior Ify Ibekwe, I think they will be better next year, led by shooting guard Davellyn Whyte.
"My staff has done an excellent job of finding good players and establishing our name," said Butts. "We've taken some important steps forward."
The most intriguing incoming recruit is 6-foot-5-inch center Aley Rohde of Phoenix Pinnacle High. Rohde's numbers this season weren't eye-catching - she averaged 14.4 points and 8.3 rebounds - but she has size that is so rare in women's college hoops.
The top incoming player is likely to be North Idaho College wing Kama Griffitts, who was named the Region 18 tournament MVP last week, leading 28-3 NIC to this week's NJCAA Division I playoffs as the No. 5 overall seed.
Aztecs GO FOR TITLE
Women's basketball team is top seed in tournament
Todd Holthaus almost always sends a text message after each Pima College women's basketball game. Over the last few weeks, those texts have started this way:
"Your No. 5 Aztecs won tonight. ..." A week later, the message began, "Your No. 4 Aztecs won. …" And then, "Your No. 3 Aztecs …"
Finally, last week, winning the NJCAA Region I title, Holthaus' text began with "Your No. 1 seed Aztecs …"
When PCC arrives in East Peoria, Ill., for the NJCAA Division II championships today, there will be no mystery. The Aztecs (26-6) are favored to beat second-seeded Parkland College (31-2) and third-seeded Kankakee College (30-1). One daunting note: Parkland and Kankakee are both Illinois schools. Winning a national title in East Peoria is going to be exceptionally difficult.
Holthaus is 82-20 over the last three seasons, finishing third and fifth at nationals in the last two seasons. But this is likely his best work. He replaced all five starters from last year's 28-8 team.
"We're definitely the party crashers," he said Saturday. "We are the only team west of Kansas at the nationals." PCC's last national championship was in 2005 in softball.
Teammates in '88, Kerr, Mason on opposite sides
Steve Kerr and Harvey Mason were teammates on Arizona's epic 1988 Final Four team. On Tuesday night, they were together again, but on opposing sides. Kerr and Mason sat together at the San Diego Jenny Craig Pavilion as their sons' high school teams met in the CIF Section playoffs. Nick Kerr scored 19 points for Torrey Pines, but it lost to Trey Mason's Loyola Cubs 55-53 in a game decided at the buzzer. Trey Mason, a freshman, was not active for the game, having just finished his junior varsity season; he projects as a key L.A.-area recruit down the line. Nick Kerr will play for the San Diego Toreros next year. … It has been six bumpy years since Hassan Adams missed a buzzer shot that would've given Arizona a 2005 Final Four berth in an agonizing loss to Illinois. After two brief stints in the NBA, Adams was employed by three European teams. He sat out the 2009-10 season, but is now playing for the Elasto Painters of the Philippines pro basketball league, averaging 22 points a game. … The Cochise College men's basketball team, coached by Salpointe grad Jerry Carrillo, shocked favored Arizona Western to win the ACCAC playoffs last week in Yuma. One step from the NJCAA finals in Kansas, Cochise lost to College of Southern Idaho on Tuesday. Freshman center Matt Korcheck of Sabino High School completed his season with a .644 shooting percentage, tops in the ACCAC. He averaged 8.4 points per game.
MORE SHORT STUFF
Ex-Badger, UA pitcher 'Scooter' Lopez dies at 83
Carl "Scooter'' Lopez was a baseball guy who left a big imprint in this community. He was a star left-handed pitcher who played on a state championship team at Tucson High and later spent four years pitching for J.F. "Pop" McKale at Arizona. A career educator in Tucson public schools, he later was the key person who formed the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame. Scooter died last week at 83. With his wife, Emma, Scooter raised seven children. A memorial service will be held 9 a.m. Friday at St. Odilia Catholic Church. … UA assistant softball coach Larry Ray is a former national-class softball player who is also a skilled golfer. But when you are a Pac-10 softball coach, you don't have much time to work on your golf game. Sometimes Ray is able to get out on Mondays for nine holes, maybe 18 if he's lucky. He was lucky on New Year's Day. That's when he got a hole-in-one on the No. 15 hole at the Quarry Pines Golf Course, the first ace of his life. "It came on 1-1-11 and I was using a Nike No. 1 ball," said Ray. … When UA sophomore Brigetta Barrett won the NCAA indoor high jump championship Friday night in Texas, she continued one of Arizona's top athletic traditions. She joined ex-Wildcats Liz Patterson, Katrena Johnson, Tanya Hughes, J.C. Broughton and Charmaine Gale as national champion high jumpers. With normal progression, Patterson and Barrett are likely to be among the top challengers for the USA 2012 London Olympic team. … Also likely headed to London is Tucsonan Jill Camarena-Williams, who set the U.S. indoor shot put record Feb. 27 in the American indoor championships in Albuquerque. Her throw of 65-2 1/4 gave her a seventh straight national indoor title. She is coached by Arizona assistant Craig Carter. … Cienega High School quarterback Jordan Mills will play at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., which has been a top recruiting area for Pac-10 schools. Mills turned down offers from Division II schools such as Fort Lewis (Colo.) and another in Iowa to play in the California JC ranks. His team's first game in September is against Butte College, which is where Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was discovered. Mills will be accompanied to Sierra by his starting center at Cienega, Jon Wedemeier.
Bruschi, Waldrop get help as Hall of Fame finalists
When ex-Wildcats Tedy Bruschi and Rob Waldrop were announced among the finalists on this year's National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame ballot, it wasn't a surprise. The Southern Arizona Chapter of that group prepared detailed biographies that were distributed to Hall of Fame officials. That type of research/promotion is what led to Chuck Cecil's election to the Hall of Fame last year. Former chapter president Ted Schmidt established a template for nominating ex-Wildcats. This year the work was done capably by UA associate athletic director James Francis, with help from ex-Desert Swarm linebacker Chris Lopez, who has joined Francis among those in the Southern Arizona chapter leadership. Bruschi seems to be a strong choice to be selected when the results are announced in May. … At the Pac-10 basketball tournament, commissioner Larry Scott said he is likely to re-evaluate the league's basketball officiating at year's end. Scott earlier performed a makeover for Pac-10 football officiating. A new guard has subtly taken over in Pac-10 hoops officiating; Friday's semifinal officials included Tucsonan Chris Rastatter, who earlier in the week was a referee in the Big Sky Championship game, Northern Colorado over Montana. Tucsonan Bob Scofield, who has climbed the ranks as well, worked Friday's semifinal women's game between UCLA and Cal. Former UA guard Brenda Pantoja, was chosen as one of three refs to work Saturday's UCLA-Stanford women's title game. … Palo Verde grad Bryce Cotton completed his freshman year at Providence as the Friars' sixth man. He averaged 27 minutes a game in Providence's final four outings, with an 8.4 scoring average in those games. He then found out that the man who recruited him last summer, Friars head coach Keno Davis, was fired.
MY TWO CENTS
O'Neill's sad behavior resembles that of several troubled coaches
When he was an assistant coach at Arizona, Kevin O'Neill rented a gorilla costume and wore it to the airport in an attempt to impress visiting recruit Sean Rooks.
It worked. Rooks was taken by O'Neill's odd personality and became an All-Pac-10 center at Arizona. O'Neill was never afraid to be different.
On his 31st birthday, while speaking to a UA class, O'Neill was surprised when Rooks, Kenny Lofton and Sean Elliott showed up, under the guise of lending some moral support.
Instead, Elliott was carrying a concealed cream pie. In front of the class, he smashed it in his coach's face. Everybody laughed, no one harder than O'Neill. When he was an assistant coach, O'Neill was everybody's pal, a laugh-a-minute, party-hardy, the joke's-on-me riot.
But when he became a head coach, in failed stints at Tennessee, Northwestern and with the Toronto Raptors, O'Neill wasn't so funny. He became a combustible personality, a cross-any-bridge type who seemed to say things merely for shock value. Nobody's laughing any longer. The man in the gorilla costume has become a tragic figure tromping down the same road taken by Bob Huggins, Larry Eustachy and Bob Knight, coaches who didn't know when to shut up and go home.