The notion that an FBI investigation was going to put a damper on Arizona’s Red-Blue Game should have been dispelled when Rawle Alkins, broken foot and all, rode a scooter onto the court during player introductions.
Or when Sean Miller was giggling with assistant Mark Phelps during the dunk contest, in which UA players threw down slam after slam, celebrating as if they had just won a national championship.
Heck, that idea should have been thrown out before the Wildcats even took the floor.
“If you would’ve seen them in the hallway before being introduced,” head coach Sean Miller said, “you would’ve thought they were getting ready for the Super Bowl. You forget they’re kids. They came to Arizona to play at McKale Center and play in the Red-Blue game.”
Friday night was about basketball, and Miller was pleased how the fifth-ranked Wildcats performed in front of a sold-out crowd.
The Blue team beat the Red team 55-37 in a scrimmage that was sharper than usual for two reasons.
For one, the Red-Blue game was scheduled a week later than usual, giving UA extra time to prepare for it.
For another, Arizona already had 10 extra practices and two exhibitions in August because of its trip to Spain.
“I don’t want to say we’re advanced, but I thought for the most part our guys did a good job at both ends,” Miller said.
While it’s nothing more than a glorified practice, Miller said the Red-Blue Game’s atmosphere will be a good primer for when the games “count the most."
“Tonight is a great test for our guys,” he said. “You’d be surprised how excited and how nervous the freshmen are for the Red-Blue game. It’s the biggest crowd in my times they’ve every played in front of, so it gets them used to that big-stage environment.”
Freshmen Deandre Ayton and Brandon Randolph already looked accustomed to it.
The 7-foot-1 Ayton didn’t disappoint in his long-awaited debut, leading all scorers with 21 points on 10-14 shooting to go along with nine rebounds in just 19 minutes.
The former No. 1 overall recruit dominated inside and scored in transition, but also hit several mid-range jumpers, plus a 3 late in the second half, living up to his reputation as a versatile offensive player.
Miller even compared Ayton’s shooting stroke to that of Lauri Markkanen.
“Lauri Markkanen was obviously an exceptional shooter for tall he is, and I would say Lauri is a little bit better than Deandre, but not nearly the gap that maybe you anticipated,” Miller said. “He has the ability to shoot the 3.”
Ayton looked every bit of the 7-foot-1, 260 pounds that he’s listed as, and he demonstrated remarkable athleticism to go along with it.
“It’s up to us to adjust and take advantage of all the talents and skills that Deandre brings to the table,” Miller said. “I thought he really stood out and the best is yet to come."
Randolph scored 16 points in 23 minutes, shooting 5-11 from the field and 5-6 from the free throw line. The wiry 6-foot-5 guard also won the dunk contest to start the night.
“Brandon is very explosive on the offensive end, and continuing to develop defensively,” Miller said. “We watch him everyday and I think as we continue to implement our system — we don’t have a lot of set plays in — Brandon is one of those guys that you want to free him up to score, because he does it so naturally.”
Miller lauded all five of Arizona’s freshmen by the night’s end.
The UA head coach praised Emmanuel Akot’s defensive ability, Ira Lee’s energy and versatility, and Alex Barcello’s toughness and defensive prowess.
And, above all, their willingness to learn.
“I think this freshman class has the opportunity to be our overall best freshman class that we’ve brought in,” Miller said, “but a big reason is their attitude.”
Miller praised Ayton’s intelligence and work ethic in particular, comparing him to NBA veteran David West, who Miller coached as an assistant at Xavier.
“David, he played with a chip on his shoulder because he was undervalued,” Miller said. “He didn’t have the ACC offer. He was from Garner, North Carolina, and man he was a great competitor, but he was also very intelligent, almost like a guard. Yet he was a big man. He had these hands and the touch facing the basket.
“Deandre is like a 7-foot, 260-pound great athlete version of David. Obviously he has his head on his shoulders. It’s been remarkable for me to be the coach of both Lauri and Deandre the last two years because both guys came in ahead of the curve, had a great opportunity to be in school for just a year, yet it was their attitude, their intelligence, and their unselfishness that stood out.”
Akot had just one point on 0-6 shooting, but tallied two rebounds and four assists while playing several positions defensively.
“Emmanuel didn’t make as many shots here tonight, but that’s OK,” Miller said. “We see him everyday. He’s as good of a defensive player as a freshman that we’ve had. I don’t say that lightly.”
That includes former players like Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who Miller said were not just great defenders, but also embraced the challenge of guarding the other team’s best players.
“That’s going to be a big role for (Akot) where he can get in the game and play different positions, because we really trust his ability to defend,” Miller said. “I think he’ll add tremendous value to our team defense, being able to guard the other team’s best perimeter player.”
Miller said Arizona is experimenting using Akot at the 4 in addition to his time at point guard.
“There’s so many teams now that play small. We want to have that capability of Rawle and Emmanuel,” Miller said. “With Rawle being out, we’ve played Emmanuel at the 4. It also gives us a chance to play a third perimeter player. So we’re really moving him back between those two spots (power forward and point guard). But when he’s out there he’s one of our best passers, regardless of what position he’s playing.”
Miller said he expects to get Alkins back from his foot injury sometime in December.
Randolph and Akot are expected to compete for Alkins’ starting spot in the meantime.
“They’re very different players,” Miller said. “Emmanuel is blessed with unbelievable court vision. He’s kind of like a point guard, even when he’s not the actual point guard out there. Tremendous defensive player. Great size.”
Freshman point guard Alex Barcello had a quiet night statistically, with two points, four rebounds, three assists and two turnovers in 24 minutes.
He was hounded throughout the night by senior Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who finished with three steals.
“If you watched (Barcello) closely tonight, it’s very difficult in the Red-Blue game to be successful as a freshman point guard,” Miller said. “Nothing is to your advantage. Everything is to Parker’s advantage in a game like tonight, but defensively Alex is very tough as well.
“Like Emmanuel, what I like about those two guys is they can come off the bench and defend unlike a lot of freshmen. Maybe more like an underclassman.”
Jackson-Cartwright said Barcello’s jump shot has stood out the most in the preseason, though the freshman did not attempt a 3 on Friday.
The 6-foot-2 Barcello participated in the dunk contest, surprising some folks with a few acrobatic dunks.
One of those people was Jackson-Cartwright, who didn’t know Barcello had that type of athleticism until recently, when Barcello showed Jackson-Cartwright a video of him performing the dunks he had planned for Friday.
“I didn’t know,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “It was funny."
Allonzo Trier believed Ayton was going to win the dunk contest, because he was impressed by the dunks he thought Ayton had in store.
“But he backed out on what he was going to do,” Trier said. “He was a little nervous and excited, so he had a change of plans.”
Ray Smith was on the blue team’s bench during the game.
Miller said he’s not sure what an appropriate title for Smith would be, but that he’s “almost a manager.”
“He’s around quite a bit,” Miller said. “When he’s not around it’s because he has an academic obligation. I don’t know how much he’ll travel, especially during the peak (academic) times. His priority is his degree and his academic life. But to have him around is not only great for our team, but I think it’s great for Ray.”
Arizona had a handful of recruits in attendance for the Red-Blue game (a list of whom you can find here), which is a “big part” of the event, Miller said.
“But once the game starts, it’s truly about the players that are already here,” he said.
Duke transfer Chase Jeter, who has to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, had six points and two blocks before fouling out in 12 minutes.
Miller said Jeter is a key part to Arizona’s notoriously competitive practices, and that the center will be a “vital cog” in Arizona’s future.
“We treat him like he’s able to play. We don’t put him on the scout team,” Miller said. “I feel like that develops guys in their sit out year better. It keeps them more engaged and it makes your practices more competitive than if we just put him on the sideline or ask him to be the other team.”
Jeter will likely be Arizona’s starting center in 2018-19 with Dusan Ristic set to graduate after the season and UA’s 2018 recruiting class in limbo.
“He’s smart, plays both ends, is very deceptive defensively,” Miller said of Jeter. “He blocks shots, has the ability to offensive and defensive rebound and plays well with other very good players.
“I think that his jump shot will continue to develop as will his game around the basket.”
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire