McKale Center figures to be as raucous as the Lute Olson golden years this season
The Arizona Wildcats' basketball program unveiled publicly yesterday for the first time its 2013-14 edition at the annual Red-Blue Scrimmage, drawing a sold-out crowd at McKale Center. Many of them showed up at least an hour before tip off, chomping at the bit.
Some of the greatest takeaways from the afternoon: the electric atmosphere, reminiscent of Lute Olson's heyday; the play (as advertised) of freshmen Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts; and Arizona continuing to mesh together as it tries to improve its perimeter game.
Arizona has already officially practiced for more than two weeks thanks to the NCAA rule-change allowing teams to start six weeks—not a month as in the past—before the season opener. That means Arizona coach Sean Miller still has 26 days to mold his team, which also plays an exhibition against Augustana College on Oct. 28.
What Miller and the captivated audience saw yesterday was a team that has a solid core of seven to eight players, most of them freshmen and sophomores, who will give Arizona a chance to play deep into March.
After observing their play and listening to the post-scrimmage comments from Miller and the players, the following are the five greatest takeaways from yesterday afternoon at McKale Center.
Many fans at McKale Center showed up more than an hour early at the Red-Blue Scrimmage to watch the slam dunk contest, won by Aaron Gordon. It's obvious that Tucsonans are beyond the wait-and-see stage with Arizona coach Sean Miller. The recent turbulence of the program appears to be a thing of the past.
80 minutes to tipoff and 7,000 already at McKale... For a acrimmage... But it has been this way since 1988...— Greg Hansen (@ghansen711) October 12, 2013
Arizona fans endured Lute Olson's retirement saga, two years of interim coaching staffs and the four years it took for Miller to indoctrinate his system. During that span, Arizona's streak of 25 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament was snapped (in Miller's first season of 2009-10) and the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NIT (following the 2011-12 season).
With the preseason hype over this season's team, the McKale crowd appears to be as hungry as the Wildcats were during Olson's signature years.
Arizona assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who was honored with his 1993-94 Final Four teammates during the afternoon's festivities, told the crowd that he never experienced fan involvement like McKale during his 13-year NBA career.
"There are some very reputable college basketball programs that, in their best attempt, don’t ever have a crowd like that for a single game, let alone an intra-squad scrimmage," Miller told reporters afterward. "These are the greatest fans in the country for coming out like they did. The fans fuel what we’re about, a players program."
Arizona freshman guard Elliott Pitts gets lost in the discussion of talented newcomers because Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are McDonald's All-Americans. The Wildcats also have more experienced guards such as junior Nick Johnson, senior Jordin Mayes and sophomore Gabe York ahead of him.
Sean Miller, undecided as to whether Pitts will redshirt this season, took the opportunity after the Red-Blue Scrimmage to laud Pitts (6'5", 180 pounds) for his contribution (via TucsonCitizen.com).
"Elliott is very understated," Miller said. “What he’s missing is some strength and size, which will come.
“But in early practices, to me, he’s been one of the highlights of our team. He really knows how to play. He’s much better on defense than your normal freshman and he can shoot the basketball, and I think that’s a quality his team can really use.”
Pitts would be wise to redshirt looking at this year's roster compared to next year's lineup. Next season, he might have to only go against York (via WildAboutAZCats.net) and a potential recruit for playing time.
T.J. McConnell's year of waiting is over
The earlier practice start allows junior transfer T.J. McConnell, formerly of Duquesne, to mesh with the players he will provide assists to this season.
Sean Miller appreciates McConnell's willingness to get others involved, but the Arizona coach commented after the Red-Blue Scrimmage that McConnell must look more for his shot to keep defenders honest. McConnell's style is a departure from Miller's previous point guards ("MoMo" Jones, Josiah Turner and Mark Lyons) who primarily looked for their shot first.
McConnell attempted only five shots (making one) in the 24-minute game (two 12-minute halves). He also had three assists and two turnovers. Known as a defensive ace, he did not record a steal, another indication he is still trying to get in the flow with his teammates.
“T.J. has to shoot when he’s open, he’s a 40 percent career three‐point shooter," Miller told reporters after the game. "This was his first time playing in over a year so I’d like to think that as he settles in he’ll have more opportunities to shoot it. He’s one of our team’s best shooters."
Arizona's overall perimeter shooting is an early concern, especially with four of the Wildcats' top three-point shooters gone from last year (Grant Jerrett, Solomon Hill, Mark Lyons and Kevin Parrom).
That leads to No. 2 in the greatest takeaways from the Red-Blue Scrimmage (next slide).
Nick Johnson is the only Arizona returner who substantially shot from beyond the arc last season
Sean Miller commented after the scrimmage that Arizona's defense is responsible for the Wildcats' 3-of-14 shooting from three-point range (via Arizona Daily Star).
Miller, however, understands that the Wildcats' perimeter shooting has room for improvement. Nick Johnson (39.3 percent) is the only returner who shot substantially from beyond the arc last season.
“I would say I’m going to look positively at it in that I think we’re a very good defensive team,” Miller said of the three-point shooting in the Red-Blue Scrimmage. “I think we have a chance to be excellent. We didn’t break down because it wasn’t like an all-star game. I thought we had a pretty good way about us to be able to play hard from start to finish.
“Certainly we weren’t perfect. But our defense is ahead of our offense and because of that I don’t look at us as generating a lot of good shots in that scrimmage.”
The Wildcats should mature and improve in this area as its young talent progresses and the pieces come together during the course of the season.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (left) and Aaron Gordon are one of the best freshmen combos to attend Arizona
Arizona's freshmen combination of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon is as good as any Lute Olson attracted in his 24 years at Arizona.
In terms of hype before their collegiate seasons began, the only comparison is Richard Jefferson and Michael Wright in the 1998 class.
Gordon electrified the crowd with his victory in the slam dunk competition before the Red-Blue Scrimmage yesterday. In his first public display at McKale, Gordon made two monster dunks, going behind-the-back along the baseline and a 360-degree slam on another.
He finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Whereas Gordon can beat a team with his athleticism and tenacity, Hollis-Jefferson goes about his business in workmanlike fashion similar to former Arizona player Solomon Hill. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field.
“Rondae played very well today, almost played better than he’s been practicing,” Miller told reporters after the scrimmage (via TucsonCitizen.com). “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Rondae in that he really listens; he’s a willing learner. Not that I didn’t think he wouldn’t be, but he comes to practice very eager and determined and he works hard every day.
“We talked about it after the game, that I really believe one of the reasons he played well today is because how he conducts himself and how hard he works every day in practice.”
Other areas that deserve consideration in this list: The maturation and improvement of sophomore frontcourt players Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley; fellow front-liner Zach Peters not cleared yet medically to play; and the Wildcats' defense being good enough to win games on its own this season.