The first time Aaron Gordon touched the ball in an official capacity, with the lights on and McKale Center filled, he performed a behind-the-back, 360-degree dunk.
How’s that for a college debut?
The school’s president, Ann Weaver Hart, held up a placard with the No. 8 on it. That was the way she graded Gordon’s first dunk. It was as if she said “you can do better.’’
And so Gordon revved up and tried it again, this time pulling off an acrobatic, ball-through-his legs dunk.
This time the president held up a “10.’’
Such are the expectations for the Arizona Wildcats.
Gordon won the dunk contest on Saturday and the Wildcats won the Red-Blue Game 44-39. There was no loser.
Sean Miller’s fifth Arizona basketball team is the most anticipated squad at McKale Center since the fall of 2004, when Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire were still college kids and it seemed like Lute Olson would coach forever.
Miller uses the Red-Blue Game as a recruiting vehicle that is matched only by the hoops-worshipping people at Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, and on Saturday he was preaching the gospel of Arizona basketball to an eager audience.
Virtually everything displayed on the court and during a Legends-On-Display video presentation was aimed at three of the nation’s most coveted high school players who sat in the front row of Section 2.
Stanley Johnson, Craig Victor and Parker Jackson-Cartwright had not been born when the 1994 Wildcats swept into the Final Four, but on Saturday afternoon, celebrating the Damon Stoudamire and Khalid Reeves, Lightning-and-Thunder season, it all came alive.
Stoudamire, now an Arizona assistant coach, stood at midcourt and told the capacity crowd that “this is why’’ UA basketball works.
This? A full house on a sparkling October afternoon, in the depth of football season, when the world seems to stop for two hours, celebrating the arrival of Gordon and fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a pair of game-changers who sat in Section 2 a year ago and bought what Miller was selling.
The video board showed Solomon Hill with legendary Larry Bird; Derrick Williams with NBA commissioner David Stern; and Steve Kerr celebrating with Michael Jordan.
“It’s an experience playing in front of these fans,’’ said 7-foot UA sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, who was superb, making all six shots he attempted, scoring 18 points in 18 minutes, perhaps a signal that he will be among the nation’s most compelling big men this season.
Immediately after the game, the three Class of 2014 high school prospects were guided to Miller’s second-floor office where he was to make one of his final pitches, a this-can-all-be-yours plea that has become the hook to the Red-Blue Game.
“There are many very, very reputable college basketball programs the don’t ever have a home crowd like this all season,’’ said Miller. “… You get a feel for the pageantry, the smell in the air, everything you feel on game day.’’
He referred to Saturday’s energy as “the fuel to what we’re all about.’’
Arizona isn’t likely to be running on empty this season. It still has to be concerned about its outside shooting because Nick Johnson opened 1 for 9 from the floor, but Miller was quick to dismiss Saturday’s statistics because, in a scrimmage, the defense is apt to successfully predict shooting patterns and play-calls.
Three things were more revealing than an off-day by Johnson:
• One, Brandon Ashley is not the fourth (or fifth) option he was as a freshman. He wants the ball. His game has expanded. “My teammates look for me,’’ he said. No wonder. He appears much-improved.
• Two, Hollis-Jefferson is a fireball, a constant-motion, get-outta-my-way freshman with length and quickness. He’s not likely to be a shooter — he wasn’t a shooter as a Pennsylvania high school standout — but he’s got a chance to be a force off the bench.
• Three, Gordon is as talented as any freshman Arizona has ever put in uniform. That includes Sean Elliott, Eric Money, Gilbert Arenas, all of them. Maybe Gordon could use some work on his foul-shooting, but that’s nit-picking.
On Saturday, Miller referred to him as “unique.’’
On Friday night, Arizona State staged its annual Maroon and Gold game, played before about 2,500 fans at Wells Fargo Arena. Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek was so amped up to display his club, especially extraordinary point guard Jahii Carson, that he set the shot clock back from 35 to 24 seconds.
It might’ve been fast and promising, but no one said anything about pageantry or a smell in the air.