The Red-Blue Game is nothing more than a scrimmage, a chance for Arizona Wildcats fans to get their first look at the roster before the season begins.
It’s oil for the hype machine.
Try telling that to Dylan Smith. Smith began his college career last season nearly 2,000 miles away from McKale Center, at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. His first game, an exhibition game against Brevard College, was played in front of 906 people.
UNC-Asheville’s home opener drew 936 people. For the 2015-16 season, the average attendance at UNC-Asheville was 1,658.
So forgive Smith if he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the 15,000 fans packed inside McKale Center on Friday.
When Smith entered the Red-Blue Game, he promptly attempted a no-look pass, and the ball sailed out of bounds. On his second offensive possession, Smith turned the ball over again. His first shot didn’t even reach the rim.
He finished with no points, one assist, two turnovers and two personal fouls in six minutes in a nondescript debut.
This was the first time Smith was exposed to the Arizona fanbase, and now he’ll spend the rest of the year in the background, obscure to the public, redshirting the season per NCAA transfer rules.
“A year from now,” UA coach Sean Miller said, “you’re going to see somebody who’s a really good player for us.”
Smith is OK with that. This isn’t the first time he has toiled in obscurity.
Less than two years ago, Smith wasn’t even sure he’d be playing basketball beyond high school. Smith played his senior season without a scholarship offer.
“I didn’t think I was going to play basketball in college,” Smith said. “I didn’t think I was going to play basketball, period.”
Smith made a name for himself in the state playoffs, scoring 27 points to help Hoover (Alabama) past the top-seeded team in the semifinals. Hoover then won its first-ever state championship. UNC-Asheville coach Nick McDevitt took notice; by May, Smith had his first scholarship offer and had made his college decision.
“Schools in my home state, they didn’t really see it,” Smith said. “They didn’t feel like I was good enough to play. Schools like Alabama … I’d been doubted a lot, so it was normal. I just felt like I had something to prove. I can’t explain it, but it’s a good feeling to prove those doubters wrong.”
The 6-foot-5-inch guard proved he belonged at this level right away in Asheville. He led the Big South in scoring with 13.5 points per game and was named a Big South All-Freshman team selection. He scored 14 and 19 points, respectively, in nonconference games against Texas A&M and Georgetown.
Smith saved his best for the NCAA Tournament. He scored 14 points, hitting four 3-pointers and dished out five assists in Asheville’s first-round loss to Villanova. Those Wildcats, remember, went on to win it all.
“I had a pretty good game against them,” Smith said. “Their coach (Jay Wright), he was great, he talked to me after the game, and he said I have a great future. It helped me realize, ‘Yeah I played on the biggest stage in front of numerous people’. That was the largest stage I ever played on, so it was a good experience.”
Smith announced his intent to transfer after the season. Arizona pursued Smith, who chose the Wildcats over North Carolina State, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Clemson, Oregon, TCU, Gonzaga and Butler.
Smith knew he wanted to be a Wildcat the minute he stepped on campus for a visit. He said it helped knowing how much success Miller has had in the past with transfer players, particularly with small-college transfers Ryan Anderson (Boston College) and T.J. McConnell (Duquesne).
“That’s the main thing,” Smith said. “He didn’t compare me to T.J., but he said I can be a player like that. T.J. was a great player here; he’s probably one of the best guards in Arizona history. He did a lot here.
“He’s doing good in the NBA. If I can just do half the things he did, I’ll be satisfied. I look up to those guys because they took the same path I took and made it to where they are now.”
The Wildcats are a team littered with NBA talent, and year to year, Miller doesn’t even really know who will return. Smith will be back next season, ready to play.
“It’s awesome for this year’s team for him to be in practice because it gives us another quality player that makes our competitive environment that much more competitive,” Miller said. “In our world of change where young players leave earlier now than ever, it’s nice to have a couple guys you know will be returning.”
UA guard Allonzo Trier added: “He’s really talented, and he’s going to be a very good player when his time comes. I’m with him every day. He’s one of the guys who works hard; he’s a hard worker. He’s a guy that will be successful here.”
Smith committed to play at UNC-Asheville in May 2015. He committed to play for the Wildcats in May 2016. Two years ago, Smith thought he wouldn’t even be playing basketball.
At UNC-Asheville, when Smith would try and work out at the gym after hours, the doors would lock. At Arizona, he can practice whenever he wants at Richard Jefferson Gymnasium.
So far, it’s his favorite spot to be around campus — the gym, after hours. He’ll spend a lot of time there during his redshirt season.
Smith won’t be obscure anymore next year.
“It’s been a blessing,” Smith said. “Being here is just, it’s just amazing. It’s hard to explain. If you would’ve told me I’d be here three to four years ago, I would’ve laughed. So, it’s just, I try to take it all in, one day at a time. I come in here every day and practice and just think: Man, I play at Arizona. People can’t say that every day. It’s amazing.”