Arizona’s Red-Blue Game starts off like an NBA All-Star Game, and as UA coach Sean Miller has built rosters on highly-ranked recruits with professional skills, it sort of feels like one, too.
When 18- and 19-year olds run out of the player tunnel, and fire — literally, fire — shoots up toward the ceiling, it’s almost as if Arizona is showing off.
If it seems showy, it’s by design.
This event is in part to pump up Arizona’s fan base for the upcoming season. But mainly, it’s geared toward recruits. That didn’t change Friday night, even in a year where the Wildcats are at the center of an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.
Among the invited guests to Arizona’s sold-out scrimmage were two players who have verbally committed to the UA’s 2018 recruiting class, and a half-dozen high school sophomores and juniors who could be future Wildcats.
Recruiting “is a big part of it,” Miller said on Friday. “But once the game starts, it’s about the players who are already here.”
The 2017-18 Wildcats competed in a dunk contest, then took part in a 24-minute glorified scrimmage. The recruits watched from the second row. Most of them — including Jason Harris, the brother of Arizona football player Jalen Harris — pulled out their phones and started recording.
Among the recruits were four-star forward Shareef O’Neal and four-star point guard Brandon Williams, both of whom have verbally committed to Arizona.
Just as notable were the players who weren’t there. Five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who according to the FBI’s report allegedly received money to commit to play at Arizona, backed out of his UA commitment on Thursday night. In recent weeks, five-star recruits like R.J. Barrett, Simi Shittu and Bol Bol eliminated Arizona from consideration.
Quinerly was tied to UA assistant Book Richardson, one of the coaches at the center of the corruption case. Richardson has been placed on paid leave while the university conducts an internal investigation. If convicted on all charges, Richardson could face 60 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.
The resulting fallout took some of the sizzle out of Arizona’s premier recruiting event.
In 2011, five-star center Kaleb Tarczewski visited during the Red-Blue Game, and later said the showcase played a part in his decision to attend Arizona. Lauri Markkanen committed to the UA the day of the Red-Blue Game in 2015.
Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson and Craig Victor attended as high-schoolers, and all four eventually signed with Arizona. Tyler Dorsey was there in 2013 and saw enough to verbally commit to Arizona, though he ended up at Oregon. The same happened with T.J. Leaf, who verballed committed in 2014 only to flip to UCLA in 2014.
For the future of Arizona’s program, O’Neal and Williams are, in a way, two of the most important recruits Miller has ever pursued. Arizona already is in trouble, but if either of that pair backs out, the Wildcats’ troubles could multiply.
Consider: Arizona could conceivably lose their entire starting five following this season. Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic will be out of eligibility; DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier are near locks to leave early for the NBA, and Rawle Alkins might not be far behind them. On the bench, Keanu Pinder is a senior, and Brandon Randolph and Emmanuel Akot both have the talent to play themselves into pro careers.
Miller will likely scramble to fill out his 2018 class. More importantly, he needs O’Neal and Williams to not only stick it out, but become immediate impact players. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of two players who aren’t considered five-star recruits.
“You have to coach this year’s team, and then whatever happens, happens,” Miller said Friday.
O’Neal spent most of Friday touring Arizona’s campus. He took pictures with fans at the bookstore and courtside at the Red-Blue Game. He has constantly tweeted his continued commitment to Arizona.
The Wildcats need him. And they need Williams.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit tough at times because that’s a lot to ask of two freshmen to come in, especially two guys who aren’t top-5 guys in their class,” said ESPN analyst Mike Schmitz, who was in attendance Friday night.
Schmitz said next year’s team is “not going to be as talented as this year’s team, but I think there’s still some stuff to work with. In terms of those guys stepping in and leading them to the Final Four? That’s a lot to ask.”