Arizona Wildcats freshman Elliott Pitts was a late arrival on the UA recruiting radar and wasn’t invited to the McDonald’s All-American Game a year ago.
But his coach at De La Salle High School, Frank Allocco, spent this week running practices for the McDonald’s West team, and he’s not so sure Pitts couldn’t have played at that level a year ago.
“Elliott’s always been very good,” Allocco said. “There were people surprised that Arizona signed him, but I thought he was very talented. He could have played in this (McDonald’s) game.”
Allocco just wasn’t sure that Pitts could play in the Wildcats’ games, at least not right away. Pitts had just 170 pounds on his 6-foot-5-inch frame when he graduated from high school last spring, after all.
“There was a chance he would redshirt, and I thought that would be a good option for him,” Allocco said. “But he wanted to compete. He wanted to stick in there and do what he needed to do.”
Pitts quickly gained 20 pounds at Arizona last summer, but Allocco said Pitts suffered a bout of mono before the season — getting sick the day the UA ran its preseason mile run — and also suffered a wrist injury that made things even more difficult. (The UA did not disclose either of those ailments.) Pitts sat out for 14 games but wound up averaging 8.4 minutes over 24 games while playing a greatly increased role after the Wildcats lost at ASU on Feb. 14, still struggling then to adjust without Brandon Ashley.
“He played limited minutes but hustled and wasn’t afraid to shoot,” Allocco said. “I couldn’t have been prouder.”
High school all-star games might be known for dunks and showboating more than anything else, but Allocco said he put some structure behind the West team’s work this week.
The West team had four practices before Wednesday’s game, and Allocco said he tried to script it so each player had a chance to show what he can do.
“You do more NBA-type of stuff,” Allocco said. “I want to stay out of their way. Every time we practice, there are 50 to 100 NBA scouts watching, so we’re trying to do stuff where we come off screens and run sets that aren’t too complicated.
“It’s not about winning, but having a chance to showcase what they can do.”
Hedging his bet
According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, future UA player Stanley Johnson has the kind of NCAA tournament bracket that Wildcats fans would be proud of.
Kentucky Wildcats fans, that is.
“I had Kentucky winning it all in my bracket,” he said.
Johnson, however, actually had four brackets filled out — and three of them had Arizona winning.
“I had (Arizona) winning the championship,” Johnson said after Wednesday’s game. “It was win or bust.”
Johnson told the Star that the Wildcats had a “great” game against Wisconsin and that, like so many Arizona fans, he disagreed with the offensive foul called against Nick Johnson with three seconds left.
Mater Dei High School coach Gary McKnight, who coached the McDonald’s West team in 2002, was given a lifetime achievement award in conjunction with Wednesday’s game.
McKnight has sent several players to UA, including former guards Miles Simon and Reggie Geary, Alex Jacobson and walk-ons David Bagga and Drew Mellon. Johnson will become the next Monarch to play for the Wildcats next season.
Arizona’s usual no-nonsense recruiting approach proved a perfect fit for Johnson, who played youth ball on his mother’s team and starred for powerhouse Mater Dei as a high schooler.
“He will be a very good coach someday,” McKnight said. “In recruiting you couldn’t fool him. He knew exactly what you had, what you do. He was very aware of everything that was going on.”
The big number
4of 24 McDonald’s boys players are bound for Pac-12 schools: Johnson, Stanford-bound Reid Travis of Minneapolis and UCLA signees Thomas Welch of Redondo Beach, Calif., and Kevon Looney of Milwaukee.
And now, a word from …
Just in case the title of Wednesday’s game didn’t give it away, the chief sponsor made sure its message came across.
While a big set of golden arches was placed over the midcourt line at the United Center, Ronald McDonald greeted players as they were introduced and took pictures with anyone who approached him.
Then, at halftime, a disc jockey played at halfcourt, using a laptop that featured a McDonald’s burger on it while standing in front of a four-foot-high sign that read: Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder.
“I’m not an All-American, but I get to hang with them, and being here at the United Center, I feel like a kid.” — West girls coach Randy Napier, coach at Perry County (Ky.) Central, the winningest coach in Kentucky girls history, after the West beat the East girls 80-78.