Newcomers look right at home in Red-Blue Game

2013-10-13T00:00:00Z Newcomers look right at home in Red-Blue GameBy Bruce Pascoe Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

One of the reasons Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller likes the Red-Blue Game, aside from the glittery show it offers fans and recruiting targets alike, is the opportunity for players to shake off some jitters.

You know, for the freshmen, and the other new guys. Saturday’s 24-minute scrimmage, won 44-39 by the Red team, was their first chance to get out on the McKale Center floor in front of a full house and get a grip on their adrenaline.

“They get out there, get a feel for the pageantry, the smell in the air,” Miller said.

True enough. There was a near-capacity and sellout crowd of 14,252 on hand for festivities that included honoring the Wildcats’ 1993-94 Final Four team, another splashy dunk contest and other events.

But was anyone actually nervous? UA keeps its freshmen off limits during the preseason so it wasn’t possible to ask Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts how they felt, but evidence suggests … they weren’t affected much.

Same with juniors T.J. McConnell and Matt Korcheck, transfers who will be active to play this season.

There was Hollis-Jefferson, slicing his way to the basket for a game-high 18 points while picking up four rebounds and two steals for the Blue team. There was Gordon, who missed a pair of early free throws, but acrobatically converted a number of off-mark shots into dunks while picking up 13 rebounds and three assists for the Red.

And there was Pitts, who faces long odds to make this season’s rotation, hitting a three-pointer, with one rebound, one steal and one assist for the Red.

“I believe that Aaron and Rondae were two of the best players in today’s game, and Elliott did a good job,” Miller said. “Elliott is very understated, if you watch him closely. He’s missing some strength and size, but in our early practices, he’s been one of the highlights of our team. He knows how to play. That’s a quality this team can use.”

Miller raved about Gordon’s uniqueness and, even though he sees Hollis-Jefferson every day in practice, may have seen something else Saturday.

“Certainly, Rondae played well today, almost better than he’s been practicing,” Miller said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Rondae in that he listens, he’s a willing learner — not that I didn’t think he would be — but he comes to practice every day eager and determined, and he works hard every day.”

So, essentially, Saturday’s festivities gave fans on hand and watching online a chance to see why those freshmen plus McConnell are a major reason why UA is now a runaway favorite in the Pac-12 and a potential Final Four contender.

There are issues, to be sure, shooting probably surfacing the most on Saturday. UA hit only

3 of 14 three-point attempts, with a number of its key shooters struggling from the field. Nick Johnson was 2 for 10, McConnell was 1 for 5 and Gabe York was 1 for 9, though he was struggling with ankle and hamstring injuries.

Miller even said that outside shooting is a “point of concern,” after suggesting previously that the Wildcats had plenty of capable shooters.

But Johnson compensated for his off night from the field by preserving the win for the Red team at the end. With the Red up 41-39 with 19 seconds to go — the official box score issues a final of 44-38 because one of the Blue team’s points could not be accounted for — McConnell had a chance to set up a game-tying or game-winning play but lost the ball to Johnson at the three-point line.

“I knew a flash screen was coming, and he loves to reject it,” Johnson said of McConnell. “So I just made a gamble, and it paid off.”

Johnson then drove down for a score, picked up a foul, and converted the and-one. Game over.

Overall, though, the Red team won in large part because of a freshman (Gordon) and a sophomore in Kaleb Tarczewski who has gotten past being a freshman. Maybe a long way past.

Tarczewski made 6 of 7 from the field to tie Hollis-Jefferson as the game’s top scorers with 18 points.

“You’re pretty nervous as a freshman, and being a little more comfortable your sophomore year really helps out there,” Tarczew-ski said. “It’s really an experience playing in front of the great fan support we have.”

On the Blue side, Ashley displayed a similar jump in his comfort level as a sophomore. He was assertive early and often, scoring over Gordon for the first shot of the game, while totaling eight points and six rebounds in the first half alone. He finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Ashley said gaining strength was a big focus in the offseason but that he also worked on agility as well.

Everything, really, the way Miller sees it.

“Brandon is just an overall better player, which you would expect because he played a lot of minutes for a very good team last season, he had a terrific summer, and he just knows what it takes a lot more,” Miller said. “Ditto with Kaleb. Brandon is very young – he could almost be a freshman — but you get stronger, and you know what it takes more.

“A lot of times that jump is significant between your freshman and sophomore years, and I believe with Kaleb and Brandon, you’re going to see that.”

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Pac-12 basketball standings

  Conference Overall
Arizona 8 1 0 0.889 20 2 0 0.909
Utah 6 2 0 0.750 16 4 0 0.800
Stanford 6 3 0 0.667 15 6 0 0.714
Oregon 5 4 0 0.556 15 7 0 0.682
Oregon State 5 4 0 0.556 13 7 0 0.650
UCLA 5 4 0 0.556 13 9 0 0.591
Washington State 4 5 0 0.444 10 11 0 0.476
Colorado 4 5 0 0.444 11 9 0 0.550
Washington 3 5 0 0.375 14 6 0 0.700
Arizona State 3 6 0 0.333 12 11 0 0.522
California 2 6 0 0.250 12 9 0 0.571
USC 1 7 0 0.125 9 11 0 0.450

AP Top 25

Pac-12 basketball schedule

Teams Date Time
Stanford at
Washington State
1/31 88-89
Colorado at
1/31 59-72
Utah at
2/1 12:30 pm
California at
2/1 1:00 pm
Washington at
2/4 7:00 pm
2/5 7:00 pm
Washington State at
Oregon State
2/5 8:00 pm
USC at
2/5 9:00 pm
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