Arizona Wildcats basketball is back.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats will hold their annual Red-Blue game Friday (and a dunk contest to go along with it) at 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Networks.
Technically, it’s our second look at this year’s team — the first was the Spain exhibition tour — but it’s still our first up-close look.
And here are some things to watch for.
Point guard play
As usual, point guard play is Arizona’s biggest question mark heading into the season.
We know what starter Parker Jackson-Cartwright will bring to the table — a high 3-point percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio, and decent defense, but not a whole lot of scoring — but who will be his backup?
Kadeem Allen graduated so Arizona needs someone to emerge as the No. 2 point guard.
Sean Miller made it sound like freshman Alex Barcello has the inside track, saying his physicality and toughness will allow him to contribute immediately.
Barcello fared well in Spain, averaging 8 points and 3 assists per game and shooting 2-5 from 3.
The Tempe native isn’t quite the pass-first point guard Jackson-Cartwright is, but maybe that will make them ideal complements.
To me, the most intriguing point guard option is Emmanuel Akot, who is said to be an “incredible passer,” despite standing at 6-foot-7.
If the freshman is capable of running the offense, he could be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams.
“It’ll surprise fans how well (he plays) and how poised he is at that position,” Jackson-Cartwright said in August. “He doesn’t get sped up. He makes the right play almost every time. He’s tough to guard because he can shoot over you and he backs you down with that pace.”
Allonzo Trier is the other point guard option Miller mentioned back in August. Trier is a natural two-guard, but he did up his assist percentage from 7.6 to 16.6 last season, showing significant improvement as a distributor.
While Trier is better suited at the 2, it wouldn’t be outlandish to see him at the point at times, especially when Rawle Alkins returns from injury.
A Trier-Alkins-Brandon Randolph trio could be lethal.
Randolph as a replacement
Speaking of Alkins, he’s going to miss the first month or two of the season with a broken foot.
Alkins is good at, well, just about everything, so replacing him won’t be easy.
Thankfully for Arizona, 6-foot-5 freshman Brandon Randolph appears to be a natural replacement.
Randolph showed an all-around game reminiscent of Alkins’ in Spain, averaging 15 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists per game, while shooting 12-25 from the field and 5-11 from 3.
That earned high praise from Miller.
“He showed his immense talent,” the UA head coach said. “Not just because he can shoot it, but athletically, he’s caught me by surprise. As he’s been a part of our strength and conditioning program and has worked over the last four or five months with Coach Rounds, his athleticism has boosted. He’s more explosive, he’s stronger, he does a lot of good things on the court.”
Randolph is likely first in line to take Alkins’ spot, so a strong performance in the Red-Blue game could lessen any concerns that come along with having to replace an elite player like Alkins.
And I’m not sure if Randolph is participating in the dunk contest, but if he is, he may win the whole darn thing.
He almost posterized a dude in Spain.
Deandre Ayton’s athleticism and role
Before Ayton arrived at Arizona, he said he wanted to “follow in the footsteps” of Lauri Markkanen as a stretch 4.
“I could see myself playing the 4, the stretch 4, just staying out there on the perimeter and shooting 3s. And down low as well,” Ayton told Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders in April.
The 7-foot-1 big man took the most 3-pointers on his high school team, so he can obviously shoot it from out there, but finding a happy medium between 3s and the post will be key for Arizona, and the Red-Blue game might give us a glimpse at how Arizona will utilize him.
If the Spain exhibitions were any indication, Ayton will be doing far more damage in the paint than on the perimeter. He didn’t take a single 3 on that trip, and showed an array of moves on the low block.
Ayton’s ability to stretch the floor at his size could help Arizona’s spacing immensely, but at the same time, his is size, strength, and 43.5-inch vertical needs to be used to create high-percentage looks in the paint.
Defensively, Arizona hasn’t really had a player with Ayton’s rim-protecting potential in recent seasons, so it would be pretty cool to see him swat a shot or two in the Red-Blue game.
Versatility of Emmanuel Akot and Ira Lee
Losing Kadeem Allen means Arizona is losing an elite perimeter defender.
None of the returners (maybe Rawle?) look particularly capable of filling that role, but there are two newcomers that could.
Miller has compared Emmanuel Akot to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson so, yeah, let’s start there.
At 6-foot-7, 200 pounds Akot can easily guard the 2,3, and 4, and if he’s playing point guard he’ll likely guard that position as well.
In fact, Miller brought up the Gonzaga game a few years ago where Rondae guarded Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos in the same game as something Akot might be able to replicate.
And like Akot, Ira Lee has the size (6-foot-7, 235 pounds) to guard three maybe even four positions, too.
So during the Red-Blue game, keep an eye on who these two are defending. You may see Akot/Lee on Parker Jackson-Cartwright one sequence then on Allonzo Trier or Deandre Ayton the next.
The center of the future
Chase Jeter has to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, so the Red-Blue game will be the last time you’ll get to see him in action until 2018-19.
Jeter was a five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, but he had a rather uninspiring two-year stint at Duke.
While the Red-Blue game is just one game, it will be interesting to see how he looks both physically and skill-wise.
Jeter had a serious back injury last year that forced him to miss several games.
Also, because of the hit Arizona’s recruiting has taken the last few weeks, Jeter’s importance at Arizona has increased, since he will almost certainly be UA’s starting center next season now. (That could have been someone like Bol Bol instead).
So even though Jeter can’t play this season, he’s still one of the most important players on the roster.
Tucson native Talbott Denny will finally get to debut for his hometown team this season.
That was supposed to happen last year, but the Lipscomb grad transfer tore his ACL in August.
Luckily, Denny was granted a sixth year of eligibility and he’ll have another opportunity to suit up for the Wildcats in 2017-18.
While it’s not clear if Denny will play in the Red-Blue game — he didn’t play during the Spain exhibition tour — his first time taking the floor at McKale Center will surely be a special moment.
The forgotten ones
Dylan Smith and Keanu Pinder are two Wildcats that always seem to get lost in the shuffle.
The 6-foot-9 Pinder was outstanding defensively last season, posting the best defensive box plus/minus on the team, but didn’t offer much offensively.
Arizona doesn’t have a ton of frontcourt depth this year, so Pinder will be needed at times. And if he can show an improved offensive game (like being able to take a 3 without being scolded), he could actually be a really valuable player.
Smith, meanwhile, is a scorer through and through.
He led UNC Asheville in scoring as a freshman two years ago, and showed a smooth jumper and mid-range game in Spain, averaging 11 points per game while shooting 8-13 from the field and 4-8 from 3 in the two exhibitions.
The 6-foot-5 Smith has a 6-9 wingspan, but didn’t rate well as defender statistically with the Bulldogs (he had a negative defensive box plus/minus).
That said, he had a year to develop and if he can hold his own on that end of the floor, he could be a key piece off the bench, especially during Alkins’ absence early in the season.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire