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NCAA Tournament: ‘It’s ironic’ Arizona is playing Saint Mary’s after Wildcats cancelled preseason scrimmage

The Wildcats didn’t scrimmage the Gaels for the first time in four years, but they’ll wind up facing each other anyway

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Salt Lake City Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Randy Bennett was on the recruiting trail when he ran into Sean Miller in Las Vegas.

A conversation ensued, and it was one Bennett wasn’t prepared for.

“He had studied what we do, which caught me off guard a little bit,” the Saint Mary’s head coach said of Miller. “He'd studied [Mickey] McConnell and [Matthew] Dellavedova and that group. We talked about that. And we talked about how we got to where we were offensively.”

It then led to more than just a conversation.

“We decided we'd scrimmage each other,” Bennett said. “He was doing us a favor that way.”

For the next three seasons, Saint Mary’s would scrimmage the Arizona Wildcats in empty gyms before their respective seasons began.

The games were competitive and the intensity “wasn’t too far down,” according to Saint Mary’s guard Calvin Hermanson.

And, of course, they kept score.

“We definitely keep score, and you tend to forget when you didn't do well,” Bennett joked. “But when you win, if you're Saint Mary's scrimmaging Arizona, you definitely remember.”

In that instance, though, winning wasn’t what mattered. It was about preparing for the upcoming season.

“The deal on those scrimmages is it's so early in the season ... you don't really care if you win those things,” Bennett said. “Sean didn't really care if he won. We didn't. I didn't. The players do, because they're playing, they're competing for playing time and they're competitors, so they do. So it's not a real game. You clear the score at half, things like that.”

Both coaches felt the scrimmages were worthwhile, so they continued them.

“Our teams when we played them were pretty good and they were pretty good,” Bennett said. “Yes, we felt like we benefited from it. I think that's the best way I could put it. We felt we played one of the top two or three teams in the west and played pretty well against them. And I think it helped us. It gave us confidence for those seasons.”

Added Miller, “for us being available in a quiet gym, to play a team that's as well coached and disciplined, that sets as many ball screens as they do, has the style they have, would really teach our team what we want to become and how hard college basketball is.

“I can remember like it was yesterday taking Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Aaron Gordon, all three of those guys and scrimmaging Saint Mary's. That would have been two and a half or three weeks into our season, where they haven't played against a college team. I think all three of their cases, although they did okay, none of them really shined. And I think it's telling that experience, how important that is, and when you're playing against a team that has a great system that it takes some time to grow and develop.”

Arizona and Saint Mary’s were supposed to scrimmage again prior to this season, but the Wildcats had to nix the plans because they had to schedule another home game.

It was the first time in four seasons they didn’t scrimmage each other, but it turns out they’ll play in a much more meaningful game instead.

Arizona will face Saint Mary’s on Saturday with a Sweet 16 appearance on the line.

“I'm not surprised,” Miller said. “We knew when we faced them ... that they're a team that's going to be in this tournament.”

Of course, the question was asked: Are those past scrimmages going to affect how either team prepares for this Round of 32 matchup?

Saint Mary’s guard Joe Rahon said SMC’s familiarity with Arizona will help “a bit” and Miller said Arizona has a feel for Saint Mary’s discipline on defense and how it moves the ball on offense and utilizes screens.

Bennett doesn’t think the scrimmages will amount to much, though.

“I don't think the scrimmages are a factor,” he said. “Because we didn't scrimmage them this year. ... If we had, it would be a little bit of a factor for us.”

If only the Wildcats didn’t have to cancel.

“I don't know if it's good or bad that we didn't [scrimmage], but it was up to us,” Miller said. “We ended up being the one that cancelled it.

“It is ironic in some ways that we're playing [them].”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire