Of all the good things Arizona coach Sean Miller saw in Friday’s Red-Blue Game, there was one really lousy part.
That’s when Brandon Williams walked on the floor in street clothes.
“He got introduced tonight, and was it just hard for me to watch him walk out there,” Miller said. “He’s a really talented player, one of the most talented guards that we've recruited, and just to see him lose this year.”
After leading the Wildcats in scoring during Pac-12 games last season while playing both guard spots, Williams will miss this season with a congenital knee issue that has bothered him since his junior season of high school.
Williams sat out 10 months between his junior and senior seasons at Crespi High School after an initial surgery and then missed four weeks last season, having surgery again after it was over.
UA announced last month that Williams would miss all season and his future remains unclear after that.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed, and his rehab continues to go well, and one day he’ll be healthy to play," Miller said. "But we miss him. It's a big loss for us. And, you know, thankfully, we have a number of guys that I think can step up and hopefully fill in for him, but to have him out there with the group that you just saw, would take us up even another notch, for sure.”
Williams’ plight is so tough that, when asked if Williams was mentoring Nico Mannion and other players, Miller turned it around.
“In fairness to him, they should be mentoring him a little bit,” Miller said. “They get to play and he doesn't.”
Miller said the ACL tears that forced Ray Smith’ retirement was the “ultimate” example of losing a career. Smith retired in November 2016 before he played a single regular season game for the Wildcats, having torn an ACL for the third time in an exhibition game.
“It's not easy on those young guys to take that one thing away,” Miller said. “And the thing that’s hard for Brandon is he missed a whole year of high school and he missed part of last year.
“But we love him and his family. They came to our program at a very difficult time and trusted us and I'm anxious to kind of repay that trust with making sure that he gets healthy and takes care of his academics
“It's maybe easier on him now. It'll get harder as the year grows, for sure. But he's off crutches and making progress. So that's I think that's his game every day to improve.”
Miller moved up the Red-Blue Game two weeks from its traditional spot to help bring in recruits earlier, but said he still worried the early date would affect the crowd response.
It didn’t. UA announced a capacity crowd of 14,600 and had about 13,000 in the seats, with only darkened seats near the top open. While piped-in acoustics drowned out the crowd during introductions, the fan noise was otherwise strong.
“You worry, you have it on a Friday evening, and it's September – will we still have the same crowd, pageantry that we've enjoyed here for really last 10 years with this game?" Miller said. “Obviously tonight we had it again, so I can’t thank our fans enough.”
Miller also added another message to super fan George Kalil, who died in July after more than four decades of avidly following the Wildcats to home and road games.
“I think George has a special place in everybody's heart that knows Tucson, Arizona, the university, but especially our basketball program,” Miller said. “He's been a fixture for decades, just seeing him in that same seat over and over again. You know, we lost him this summer, and it was a big, big loss. But I'm glad that we had an opportunity to least acknowledge who he was still is and how much he meant to our program here before tonight's game.”
Arizona didn’t have Chase Jeter available for Friday’s Red-Blue Game because of a strained groin, but the frontcourt was still pretty productive on both sides without him, with a legitimate seven players on each side, counting walk-ons Kory Jones, Jake DesJardins and Matt Weyand.
That’s a luxury that could continue to help the Wildcats this season.
“For a long time, we've had a really good practice environment, we've had depth, we've had players competing against each other every day,” Miller said. “A year ago, we didn't have that. We just didn't have the depth at certain places, maybe the talent, certainly the size. And you saw, the longer that our season went, the harder it was for us. We did the best we could In practice, but we didn't have those big bodies competing against each other.
“For example, if Chase wasn't able to play in last year's Red-Blue Game, the game would have really looked funny. I mean, we would have ran out of people almost. But this year, he didn't play and we had four or five guys in there competing. So it's up to us to use that as our advantage, like where does that show up rebounding margin, being able to play through fouls, injuries, being harder to score against around the basket. Maybe being a team that can get second shots more easily."
Miller said again after Friday’s scrimmage that center Christian Koloko has been better than expected so far. The 7-footer from Cameroon had eight points and three rebounds in 16 minutes.
“Wee knew he had a great year last year at Sierra Canyon and he developed a lot,” Miller said. “I just think that what he came from that winning environment, with what he learned there, and (even though) he hasn't played basketball for very long, he's further along in his development than maybe we thought he was.
“Everything’s on the table for us (as far as) who's going to play. But to have somebody at seven feet, it can protect the rim. He's still a work in progress offensively, but he can make plays, he can catch the ball. He's pretty good free-throw shooter. And mostly, I love his work ethic. He works at the game, even though he's seven feet tall. So we’re really thrilled to have him.”
Miller defended Nico Mannion, the Wildcats’ most highly touted freshman and a projected lottery pick next June, after Mannion shot 2 for 7 and had four turnovers to three assists.
“You know, I'm going to be his biggest fan here early on because it's just almost unfair, the high expectations that are placed on him,” Miller said. “I mean, he's a really good player, and he's only going to get better. But he's not going to be able to do it alone. He's going to have his bumps in the road. He's seeing things for the first time.
“Tonight was his first-ever moment in McKale. He's going to be that much better moving ahead, you're going to see Nico play against the zone for the first time. He's gonna have to guard different styles. So that's why you go to college and I have no doubt that, like, really all of our freshmen, they'll continue to develop and grow. But we're counting on Nico. But … he’s going to miss a few shots. He's not going to be perfect every night. But he's going to get there. There's no doubt about it.”
Miller said Mannion’s ability to score and distribute at a high level make him unique.
“He's so skilled shooting and usually you don't say that about a point guard who can also make his teammates better,” Miller said. “Being able to do both is hard to do. The third part of it is to defend and that's with all of our freshmen, the biggest jump they have to make is being able to play college defense. And, and we're working at that every day.”
Josh Green had seven points and a rebound with three turnovers but had two steals after having expressed a desire to excel defensively, something Miller has said he can do. Miller has frequently compared Green to former UA guard Nick Johnson, who became the Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2014 in large part because of his defensive ability.
“That's where his talent lies immediately,” Miller said. “There are things about Josh's game that he'll work on and improve, But right out of the gates where he's blessed is his athleticism and his physicality. It would be great for him to embrace that role.
“When Nick really embraced that defensive role, that's when everything happened, good for both him and the team. I think Josh can have a lot to do with that.”
Miller said Dylan Smith was similar, still not getting enough credit for his defense.
“Dylan gets you now with experience,” Miller said. “He's been through so many situations that he knows what to do and how to do it. You think about those two guys. They're both 6-5, 6-6, and Josh has longer arms. Hopefully, those two can really help us on the defensive end.”
Offensively, Smith was only 1 for 6 from 3-point range, after hitting 40 percent in Pac-12 games last season.
“Part of being a good player is not trying to do everything,” Miller said. “Very few basketball players are good at everything. It’s those that stick with what they do well, stay away from what they don't know their role, that you really admire. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer figure that out.
“But what does Dylan do? He can hit 40% of his 3-point shots, especially when he takes good ones. He’s an excellent defensive player, and with his experience, if he could bring those two things to the table on a daily basis for our team this year, man, he will help us win a lot of games.”
Since it’s only September, Jeter’s injury is hardly a worry at this point, though he has missed other workouts prior to the Red Blue Game. The Wildcats don’t play St. Mary’s for their closed scrimmage until the weekend of Oct. 19 and won’t open the regular season until Nov. 6 against NAU.
“I think he'll be fine,” Miller said.