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What to watch for in Arizona’s Red-Blue Game

Photo by Simon Asher

Basketball season is finally here!

Sort of.

The Arizona Wildcats will festively tip off the 2019-20 season on Friday in McKale Center with the annual Red-Blue Game at 7 p.m. MST on the Pac-12 Network.

While we will only be treated to 24 minutes of basketball that are not particularly meaningful, here are some things to watch for anyway.

The other point guard

With Brandon Williams out for the year, Arizona has a gaping hole at backup point guard.

OK, maybe it’s not a gaping hole since Nico Mannion will play a lot of minutes and is really freaking good, but heaven forbid he gets tired, in foul trouble or—gasp!—injured, the Wildcats could be in a lot of trouble.

Since they have no choice but to use two point guards in the Red-Blue Game, it will be interesting to see who lines up against Mannion.

Based on what Sean Miller said at his media day press conference, UC Irvine graduate transfer Max Hazzard and sophomore Devonaire Doutrive seem like the surest bets. Dylan Smith and even Josh Green could be options too. All four are best described as combo guards or wings, which is why them having to play the point is concerning.

Nothing from the Red-Blue Game will give us any meaningful indications as to who is best equipped to handle the backup role—a scrimmage is a tiny sample size—but it might at least give us a glimpse at the current pecking order.

The freshmen

Let’s face it—most people tune into the Red-Blue Game to see the newbies (sorry, returners), and this year’s batch of freshmen is pretty dang exciting. Expect to see some dimes and drives from Nico Mannion, some explosive finishes from Josh Green, and some dunks and blocks (maybe) from Christian Koloko, whose offensive skills will be put to the test.

As for Zeke Nnaji, well he might be the most intriguing player of the bunch because he doesn’t seem to fit a traditional archetype. Is he a stretch 4 that can also bang on the boards? he a traditional 4 that just so happens to able to shoot 3s?

The transfers

Oh hey, Arizona has a quartet of transfers to break in too. Since two of them—Jordan Brown and Jemarl Baker Jr.— probably won’t be playing this year (Baker has applied for a waiver) this will be the last time you will see them on the court until next fall. Might as well savor it.

Baker is the self-proclaimed best shooter on the team, so let’s see if he can back that claim up. He is no stranger to events like this, having participated in Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness.

Brown’s length and athleticism will stand out, but what about his offensive repertoire? He struggled on that side of the ball at Nevada.

Hazzard will get a big ovation because his brother is legendary walk-on Jacob Hazzard, and he is my bet to have a big game. Without much rim-protection (more on that in a sec) these games are built for volume-scoring guards.

Stone Gettings will have a chance to showcase his offensive versatility. The Cornell grad transfer said on media day that he will play the 3 and the 4, so it is very possible we see him playing in a three-big lineup alongside guys like Nnaji, Brown, Ira Lee and Chase Jeter.

Disposing those first-game jitters

Miller said one reason the Red-Blue Game was moved up this year—usually it takes place in early-to-mid October—is so the players can get their first-game jitters out of the way earlier.

It has been pretty obvious over the years that those are real. Here is a good stat: In the last three Red-Blue Games, the Wildcats have shot 12 for 61 from 3 (19.6 percent).

Seeing Arizona struggle Friday wouldn’t be surprising, especially since the 3-point line has been moved back and there are more newcomers than returners. The point is, don’t look too much into it.

The 2016-17 squad was Arizona’s best 3-point shooting team in a decade, yet only shot 5 for 19 from distance in the Red-Blue Game.

Disinterested defense

Same thing with the defense. No one expects Koloko and Jeter to feverishly meet Green or Mannion at the rim in a game that means nothing. The worst thing that can happen is someone gets hurt.

Besides, no one wants to get posterized in their first appearance in McKale Center.

The perimeter defense should be a different story. And with the way Arizona has struggled to guard out there in recent years, it would be encouraging to see someone like Doutrive or Smith pester Green and Mannion (or even vice versa).

Just don’t overdo it.

The future Wildcats in attendance

As fun as the Red-Blue Game is for fans and players, it is a recruiting event through and through. Another reason it was moved up this year is so Arizona can make an earlier impression on recruits.

“A lot of people don’t want to make a decision until they visit, and if that date is late October... you’re not going to make a decision or be prepared to an informed decision until you can touch and feel Tucson and University of Arizona and compare it to other choices,” Miller explained Tuesday.

A list of recruits expected to be in attendance can be found here.