SALT LAKE CITY – Before Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Aaron Gordon and Stanley Johnson bolted into the first round of the NBA draft, before they even put on an Arizona Wildcats jersey for real, their first college-game-like experience came against the Saint Mary’s Gaels.
It wasn’t good.
For any of them.
Saint Mary’s, which will face the Wildcats in a second-round NCAA Tournament game Saturday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, held closed preseason scrimmages with the Wildcats before the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. The one in Moraga, California, the second one at McKale Center and the third back in the Bay Area.
Although the scores were reset at halftime and largely ignored by the coaches, several participants involved said the Gaels basically won every time — with their patient, screen-to-the-death style of offense testing the patience of even the most talented Wildcat rookies during the infancy of their college careers.
“I think in all three of their cases, although they did OK, none of them really shined,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “I think it’s telling that experience, how important it is. When you’re playing against a team that has a great system, it takes some time to develop.”
The results, in a weird sort of way, were great for everybody.
Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett had the chance to immediately show his players every season that, even though they would have to compete in the mid-major West Coast Conference, they were good enough to hang with a stellar team. The Wildcats won the Pac-12 and reached the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight the first two years they scrimmaged SMC.
“He was doing us a favor that way,” Bennett said of Miller. “We felt like we benefited from it. We felt we played one of the top two or three teams in the West and played pretty well against them. It gave us confidence for those seasons.”
Miller talks as if Bennett was doing him a favor. Having that sort of fundamentally sound team be able to test his players early in the season was the sort of thing your everyday exhibition game against a Division II team simply can’t match.
It was also a better teaching tool than your everyday practice, too.
So Miller loved the scrimmages, win or lose.
“For us,” Miller said, “being in a quiet gym, to play a team that’s as well-coached and disciplined, that sets as many ball screens as they do, has the style they have, would really teach our team about what we want to become and how hard college basketball is.”
The Wildcats’ three most veteran players — Kadeem Allen, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright — went through the experience twice.
It wasn’t fun for any of them, either.
“Both of those scrimmages, they beat us,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “They don’t beat themselves. They’re very disciplined on defense and on offense. When you’re playing a team like that, you have to be extremely locked in on attention to detail.”
Ristic also left with his eyes wide open.
“My freshman year, they were playing at such a high level,” Ristic said. “They were a good team and they really played well together. Last year was kind of the same thing. They’re a really good screening offense and they’re really good at pick and rolls.”
The scrimmages were born out of what both coaches call mutual respect. Miller and Bennett have been seen chatting at Las Vegas summertime recruiting showcases and Bennett said it was during the recruiting circuit when Miller struck up a conversation he did not expect.
“He had studied what we do, which caught me off guard a little bit,” Bennett said. “He had studied (Mickey) McConnell and (Matthew) Dellavedova and that group. We talked about that, and we talked about how we got to where we were offensively.”
Over time, their discussions and scrimmages developed into a friendship. Bennett now calls Miller a friend, a “class act” who’s a really good coach, while Miller’s return praise is just as strong.
“Randy Bennett is one of our game’s great coaches and he deserves a ton of credit,” Miller said. “He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the job that he does.”
No contract was ever signed for their three scrimmages. Both sides simply liked the deal so much they kept showing up every October.
Arizona used the trips to Moraga in 2013-14 and 2015-16 as a dry run for Pac-12 play, using the same rough schedule it would use for games at nearby Cal, while the Gaels made a trip to Tucson in 2014-15 and were expected to arrive again this season.
They didn’t make it, only because the Wildcats had to call them off.
NCAA rules allow teams to play two exhibition games against non-Division I opponents every preseason, or one exhibition and a closed scrimmage. But UA’s heavy slate of road and neutral-site games this season meant it could not satisfy the 18-game home minimum for season-ticket sales (which can count exhibitions) if it played a closed scrimmage.
So instead, the Wildcats replaced a fourth Saint Mary’s scrimmage with a second exhibition. In their first exhibition game on Nov. 1, against the College of Idaho, UA forward Ray Smith blew out his ACL — and the Wildcats won by 51 points.
No doubt Miller would have preferred another closed-door session with Bennett’s bunch instead.
“Those scrimmages were great,” Miller said. “We were supposed to scrimmage them this year and I don’t know if it’s good or bad we didn’t.”
He may find out Saturday when the Wildcats and Gaels meet for real.
And when the score, this time, will matter more than ever.