If there was an elephant somewhere inside McKale Center on Friday evening, it was hardly discernible.
Besides, Deandre Ayton probably would have bowled the thing over anyway.
The mega-hyped Bahamian freshman made a McKale debut that was every bit worthy of his billing, with 21 points on 10-for-14 shooting, nine rebounds and 1 of 2 3-pointers while leading the Blue team to a 55-37 win over the Red.
Ayton scored inside, repeatedly creating second-chance shots, shot from midrange and even popped one from long range, helping the Wildcats’ lone weakness (2 for 19 from 3-point range) in a game that featured both talented freshmen and experienced upperclassmen.
While Ayton dominated, freshman guard Brandon Randolph had 16 points and the typically steely-eyed Allonzo Trier came through with 15.
The scrimmage performances came on top of the usual pregame Red-Blue celebration, where players were loudly ushered in one-by-one before a sellout crowd of over 14,000, and even the injured Rawle Alkins managed to make a splash.
With a broken foot having kept him from defending his slam dunk title from last season – when he dunked over UA coach Sean Miller – Alkins drew rowdy cheers when he rode on the court in an electric scooter, wearing both a boot and his trademark grin.
All that made it easy, for a couple of hours at least, to forget the past few weeks around the program, the FBI investigation that resulted in the arrest of Book Richardson and prompted UA to commission an independent investigation.
Then again, Miller and Trier both indicated, that’s pretty much the way it always is. For them, the gym, and the game are therapy. They are life.
Not just this season. But every season.
“It’s the same,” Miller said, when asked about the feeling of being on the court this season. “These guys, they enjoy it. If you would have seen them in the hallway before they got introduced, you’d think ‘Man, they’re getting ready to run out there for the Super Bowl.’ You forget they’re kids.
“They came to Arizona to play at McKale Center and play in a Red-Blue Game. A lot of them have been in the crowd watching as a recruit and this is the beginning of college basketball season. It’s a very, very exciting part of their lifetime and certainly we don’t want to do anything to dim that.”
Even Trier, already having been through two Red-Blue Games plus a half-season suspension that could have soured him on things, played the game with midseason intensity. He had 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting, though he missed all five 3-pointers he took.
When asked if basketball has provided a sanctuary of sorts for him, too, Trier suggested it always does.
“We feel like we’re playing basketball and having a good time,” Trier said. “That’s what we love to do and what we came here to be a part of. We’re gonna continue to work and try to get better and go after our goals for this basketball season. That’s all we’re worried about.”
While Ayton made his biggest impact in the second half, the first half was more about freshman wing Randolph (16 total points) and the veterans led by Trier. Senior point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright had three steals over the first seven minutes while Trier put a slick crossover move on freshman Emmanuel Akot and found himself wide open for a jumper with Akot going the other direction.
Even junior transfer Chase Jeter, who will sit out this season after transferring from Duke, pulled some veteran moves. He had a block and two points in the first half while making what will be his only appearance on the court this season.
In the second half, Jeter reached over Akot to block his shot 5 feet from the basket, and the Blue team recovered with Trier feeding Ayton for a dunk that gave the Blue a 36-24 lead.
Miller said Jeter has been a valuable factor in the frontcourt competition, even though he won’t play this season, while saying his freshman class could be the best he’s had yet, counting Akot, aggressive combo guard Alex Barcello, rugged forward Ira Lee and Randolph, whose considerable hops lifted him to the pregame dunk contest title.
Together, they’re a combination that could still have Arizona competing for a Final Four next spring, no matter what else happens around them.
“Our practices are spirited,” Miller said. “We’ve had some very good practices and by the way we’ve had some bad ones too. But I do think the intent of our team is good and as much as it’s about the older players leading, man I’m very impressed with the young guys and their attitude.”