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What to watch for at Arizona’s Red-Blue scrimmage

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-scrimmage-red-blue-preview-newcomers-returners-2021 Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats are still more than a month away from the start of the 2021-22 season, but fans will get an early glimpse of this year’s squad on Saturday during the annual Red-Blue instrasquad scrimmage at McKale Center.

The Red-Blue Game was not held in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, and this event will mark the first time fans can see the UA at McKale since March 7, 2020.

Here’s what to be on the lookout for on Saturday afternoon:

Some old faces, plenty of new ones

Arizona returns six scholarship players from a year ago, five of whom saw regular action. Forward Azuolas Tubelis is the top returning scorer and rebounder, having averaged 12.2 points and 7.1 boards per game, with guard Kerr Kriisa’s 2.4 assists per game the tops among returners.

Wing Bennedict Mathurin is the top returning shooter, having hit on 41.8 percent of his 3-point attempts, while center Christian Koloko was the top shot blocker at 1.3 per game. Also back is wing Dalen Terry, who did a little bit of everything and who is expected to make a big leap in production in his second year of college ball.

The Wildcats added six scholarship players, four via transfer. Guard Justin Kier comes in from Georgia, where he averaged 9.5 points in his one season with the Bulldogs after playing at George Mason from 2016-20.

Kier is a graduate transfer as is forward Kim Aiken Jr., who actually committed to the UA twice after leaving Eastern Washington. He originally pledged to the Wildcats right before Miller was fired then changed his mind and transferred to Washington State, but after not getting admitted to their graduate program he once again picked Arizona. Aiken, who averaged 10.3 points and 7.6 rebounds in three seasons at EWU, is the only player on the UA roster with NCAA Tournament experience after starting against Kansas in the first round of the 2021 tourney.

The other transfers guard Pelle Larsson, who in his one season at Utah started 18 games and hit 46.3 percent of his 3s, and 7-foot, 260-pound center Oumar Ballo, who followed Tommy Lloyd from Gonzaga where he appeared in 24 games over two seasons.

Arizona only signed two freshmen in the 2021 class, bringing in guards Shane Nowell from Seattle and Adama Bal from France.

An unfinished project

Arizona only began official preseason practice on Tuesday, so it will be hard to really gauge how this team looks from the scrimmage. Lloyd said Wednesday that so far he’s installed his base offense and defense but there’s still a lot more implementation to be done before the Nov. 1 exhibition against Chico State.

“It’s gonna be a great introduction to this team,” he said. “This team’s got a lot of personality, it’s got guys that are really excited to play for Arizona. Whatever happens Saturday is gonna be a great teaching tool for our staff to help the players with.”

Lloyd said he may not have two defined teams for the scrimmage, instead likely opting for mixing and matching in order not to wear anybody out.

“We got to see what kind of shape we’re in,” he said. “Right now we got a few guys dinged up so your numbers are a little down, so six guys playing 24 minutes is a lot right now. We’ll probably divide that up a little bit, probably play a half where the teams are, quote unquote, pretty even and probably play a half where it’s tilted more to one side just to see how guys play.”

The only scholarship player not expected to play is Larsson, who is recovering from surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot.

A fast tempo

Lloyd is hoping to play at a very fast pace at Arizona, something previous coach Sean Miller also said but rarely did. Though it’s a scrimmage, it will be interesting to see just how quickly the Wildcats get the ball up the court and whether they can maintain that tempo.

“When you’re doing it for real, and teams have a transition defensive plan and they’re throwing out presses, things like that, it’s hard, and it takes a lot of effort a lot of energy,” he said. “You almost got to be unrelenting. I’ve been happy with the pace we play but I’m sure what’s going to happen … I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m sure Saturday you’ll you’ll see some of that and you’re gonna see other possessions where it just bogs down because they’re tired or they’re being lazy or whatever happened.”

Arizona ranked 198th out of 357 teams in adjusted tempo last season, averaging 67.7 possessions per 40 minutes, and never played faster than the 69.3 possessions-per-40 pace of the 2019-20 team that featured Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji.

At Gonzaga, Lloyd helped coach a squad that was seventh nationally in adjusted tempo in 2020-21 at 73.8 per 40, averaging a higher rate each of the past five seasons than Arizona ever did under Miller.