The box score from Arizona’s 2016 Red-Blue Game will live forever, somewhere in PDF-land, but here’s what won’t be in it:
Rawle Alkins dunking over Sean Miller. Ray Smith coming back from two ACL tears. The introduction of UA’s talented freshmen. Top-rated recruiting targets sitting nearly courtside. And Arizona’s 1997 national championship team being honored.
All that might have more meaning, to the big picture of Arizona’s program, than the numbers inside the box score.
“I told our guys after the game, ‘I’ve watched players in this game be the highest scorer and a month later, they’re not good enough to even play in a regular-season college game,” Miller said. “I’ve watched guys struggle in the Red and Blue game, usually the first-year players, and become first-round picks that summer.”
While all of the Wildcats’ first-round NBA picks under Miller have generally played well in UA’s annual preseason public scrimmage — Derrick Williams averaged 14 points in two Red-Blue Games, Aaron Gordon had 13 rebounds in 2013-14 and Stanley Johnson scored 17 in 2014-15 — it is true that several players have suffered from the post-Red-Blue blues.
Like forward Sidiki Johnson, who scored 18 points on 7-for-7 shooting in the 2011-12 Red-Blue Game, yet was dismissed from the team less than two months later after playing a minimal role.
Or Kyryl Natyazhko, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds as a freshman in 2009-10 game, but lost his starting job to Williams by the second game of the regular season, and wound up taking a slower-than-expected road through the UA program.
Most recently, there was the 2014 Red-Blue Game when Craig Victor had 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting and Dusan Ristic had 14 on 7-for-8 shooting … but Victor couldn’t crack the rotation and transferred after eight games while Ristic was limited to 8.6 average minutes in large part for defensive reasons (and Kaleb Tarczewski’s presence).
So this year, of the newcomers, while Alkins and Lauri Markkanen lived up to expectations, freshman Kobi Simmons went 1 for 6 with two turnovers to two assists and juco transfer Keanu Pinder was 1 for 5. Redshirting sophomore Dylan Smith was scoreless with two turnovers, too.
Which means, well, maybe not a whole lot.
“You have to take what you see out there with a grain of salt,” Miller said. “But it is always a reminder when you watch the Red-Blue Game the advantage of experience.”
Friday’s evidence: Returnees Parker Jackson-Cartwright (seven assists, no turnovers), Ristic (16 points on 7-for-10 shooting), Allonzo Trier (16 points on 7-for-11 shooting with three assists) and Kadeem Allen (14 points, five rebounds), who benefits both from being the team’s oldest player and by having moved mostly off the ball after handling the point last season.
“You can see he has more talent in that area as a perimeter player,” Miller said of Allen. “You have to remember a couple of years ago, Kadeem averaged 28 at Hutch (Community College in Kansas). He’s waited his turn, paid his dues, and has had a really good offseason. He’s mature, he’s older and we need him to be a really good player for sure.”
It helps, Allen indicated, that Miller has prodded his confidence.
“Coach tells me every day: Take open threes, take all the open looks I get, and just be aggressive more often,” Allen said.
Jackson-Cartwright, meanwhile, has logged the most minutes of any Arizona player — plus a freshman year of practice minutes opposite T.J. McConnell — and that showed Friday, too.
“I think back to when he would have been playing against T.J. and, man, he’s really gotten better,” Miller said. “It’s really obvious to see. He’s stronger, faster, more sure of himself and he’s one of the many things I’m excited about.”
While defense continued to hold Ristic back last season, Miller has repeatedly praised his offseason work and says any defensive improvement will surface when UA plays other teams.
Miller said he recently had a conversation with coaching buddy Billy Donovan, now the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Donovan noted how tough and smart Tarczewski has been defensively in camp with the Thunder so far this fall.
“Dusan was around that (Tarczewski’s presence) for two years and I think he really learned a lot from that experience,” Miller said. “But now is his time and we have an incredibly gifted offensive player who’s going to be an improved defender. It’s up to us to continue to teach him.”
Still, even Ristic said it was “too early” to really gauge his improvement, just as Miller said it was too early to judge Simmons, since he’s a true freshman being asked to play both guard positions.
“Right now he’s not gonna look as good in a game like this as if I had just given him one thing to learn,” Miller said. “He had a lot going on but I think for his career and the depth of our team we’re trying to move him back and forth right now.”
The Wildcats will have a full two weeks for more development before they surface publicly again on Nov. 1 in an exhibition game against the College of Idaho.
That’s when only five guys will squeeze on to the floor at one time, and position battles will become more acute.
That’s when Miller will find out who is really seeing a big picture, instead of just the glimpse that is the Red-Blue Game.
“The role they have at the beginning of the year might not even be close the role they have at the end of the year but the way it will change is to stay with us and believe in what we do,” Miller said.
“So (the Red-Blue) is usually the first test. Once you see how they react to the Red-Blue — if they have problems, they’re never making it here.”