It’s always a good sign for your basketball program when you can draw 14,655 fans – and it’s just a practice. For the record, that’s a full house at McKale Center.
After a couple of back-to-back Elite Eight finishes, the University of Arizona fan base eagerly awaits the start of a new season. The annual Red-Blue scrimmage game, held last Saturday, gives fans their first look at the next edition that will continue the quest to reach a Final Four appearance at the NCAA Tournament in March.
It would be the first for head coach Sean Miller, who is preparing for his seventh season in Tucson. He’s been wildly successful in bringing the storied program back to the national prominence it enjoyed under hall-of-fame coach Lute Olson, building a .758 winning percentage in six years and pulling in national rankings and top-10 recruiting classes on a regular basis.
Miller lost the core of his 34-wins team from last year, which won the Pac-12 and the conference tournament, as Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, T.J. McConnell, and Brandon Ashley departed to test the waters at the next level.
Gabe York, the senior guard who played in all 37 games last year and started 13, is back to provide leadership and continuity. And Kaleb Tarczewski, the senior 7-foot center that has been an impact player the last few years, will be there again to help discourage drives to the basket.
But Miller’s job again will be finding a way to blend in new talent and get everybody on the same page as early in the season as possible. He’s got a lot more balance this year, admitting that there’s little difference in skill level from the starters to well down the bench. That offers an entirely different approach than the last few years when he had a stable of NBA-bound recruits stopping by for a year or two of college ball.
That’s one reason fans look forward to the Red-Blue Game, when they can get their first look at incoming talent, or players who sat out the year before for various reasons.
A couple of those players who stood out were Mark Tollefsen and Ryan Anderson. They’re both 6’9″ forwards who transferred into the Wildcat program, and both have one year of eligibility left to give Miller. Tollefson, who started every game last year at University of San Francisco, left a lasting impression with UA fans after winning the slam-dunk contest before the game and then helped the Red team to a 49-41 win with 13 points and eight rebounds.
Anderson, who sat out last season after transferring in from Boston College, led the Blue team with 15 points and eight rebounds. The senior started all 32 games for BC as a junior, averaging 14.3 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds.
Allonzo Trier scored nine points in making his college debut in the Red-Blue Game. The true freshman, who spent his senior prep year at the basketball factory in Nevada called Findlay Prep, is a McDonald’s All-American who played two summers for Team USA. His name was just added to the 2016 Jerry West Award watch list, which honors the top shooting guard in the nation. He should be ready to step in and become an impact player this year.
Sophomore Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who saw limited time in 34 games last season, will have to fill the void left by McConnell and will be the only true point guard on the roster.
While Miller won’t have the kind of marque players he enjoyed last year, he feels this team is actually deeper in talent. That may be one reason the media picked Arizona in its pre-season poll to win the Pac-12. But the lack of high-profile all-stars should ease some of the pressure of high expectations for this year’s squad, the kind of pressure that comes with chasing after that elusive Final Four berth.
However, the fans that showed up over the weekend are still expecting big things from a program that has regained its footing as an elite national program.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)