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Red-Blue Game marks long-awaited return of fans to McKale Center for basketball

Red-Blue Game marks long-awaited return of fans to McKale Center for basketball

If the COVID era seems like it never ends, consider how things have felt over at McKale Center.

The last time the Arizona Wildcats played a basketball game before fans there, Nico Mannion was the point guard, Zeke Nnaji and Josh Green were polishing off their résumés for the NBA and the last-place Washington Huskies upset the Wildcats in an uninspiring “senior day” effort.

Oh, and Sean Miller was the coach … and the NCAA was still seven months away from finishing its investigation of the basketball program, triggering a resolution process that continues today.

It was March 7, 2020, just four days before the entire sports world began shutting down … and almost 19 months before Arizona fans are being invited back to watch basketball again inside McKale. The Wildcats played 16 home games last season but only staff and media were allowed to watch.

There will still be COVID protocols this time — fans will be asked to mask up except when eating or drinking, and they’ll be expected to be vaccinated or have a recent negative COVID test — but it’s basketball.

Live basketball, with a live crowd. No cardboard cutouts of fans, no canned recording of fan noise, and a heavily reworked team on the floor.

Former Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd took over the Wildcats in April after UA fired Miller, and retooled a 12-man scholarship roster that has six newcomers, more international players (eight) than domestic (four) players .. and only one guy, center Christian Koloko, who has actually played in a Red-Blue Game before.

It’s time for everybody to get acquainted.

“It should be an electric night to open up McKale for basketball again,” UA athletic director Dave Heeke said. “There’s a lot of anticipation and a lot of excitement with the newness of the program but also just the opportunity to be together and watch a game, to have fans in the arena and to hear the roar in McKale — that’s gonna be exciting, and to hear the band play.

“For a year, (band members) haven’t played in front of anyone, and I know they’re excited to play as well. It’s gonna be fun.”

During his preseason media day address, Lloyd said he and his players feel the same way.

“This is gonna be a great introduction to this team,” Lloyd said. “This team’s got a lot of personality. It’s got guys who are really excited to play for Arizona and I think they just want to get out in front of you guys and the fans and play with great effort.”

Well, there may be a little problem with that. Lloyd has only 11 healthy scholarship guys, since sophomore guard Pelle Larsson is still recovering from August surgery to repair a broken foot, so that doesn’t make it easy to go 5-on-5 for what is traditionally two 12-minute halves of Red-Blue play, even with walk-on help.

Especially if you consider the fun-but-tiring uptempo system Lloyd is installing.

“They all say they want to play that way until you really make them play that way, in a real structured deal,” Lloyd said. “They want to play that way in an open-gym setting, where the other guys aren’t getting back on defense. When you’re doing it for real, and teams have a transition defensive plan and are throwing out presses and things like that, it’s hard. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of energy and you’ve almost got to be unrelenting.

“I’ve been happy with the pace we play, but I’m sure Saturday you’ll see some of that and you’re gonna see other possessions where it just bogs down because they’re tired or they’re being lazy or whatever. That’s why, whatever happens Saturday, it’s going to be a great teaching tool for our staff to help the players with.”

In an effort to ease pressure on the players, Arizona said Friday the halves will be trimmed to only 10 minutes each this time. Here’s some other things to note about how it all will look this year:

There are still COVID protocols.

As it did with football, Arizona is saying it expects fans to be vaccinated or have received a negative COVID test in the past 72 hours in order to enter, though fans will not be checked to confirm either.

“If you aren’t one of those two things, then we encourage you probably not to come,” Heeke said. “But that’s on the honor system. We respect our fans and we know they’ll do the right thing.”

Fans will also have to wear masks to enter the building or walk around the concourse. The only time fans can remove their masks is to eat or drink while seated.

Heeke said fans otherwise not wearing masks will be reminded “how important it is to wear them in our indoor spaces.”

But plenty of fans are expected to show up.

Despite the Delta variant, Heeke said Arizona has seen a 95% renewal rate for men’s basketball season tickets and that he expects more than 10,000 fans for the Red-Blue Game.

“Maybe some people are choosing not to come because of the pandemic right now but we’ve had really strong responses as well,” Heeke said. “I would say the biggest trend is people want to come back, they want to be together, they want to watch the games, and we’re trying to provide the most healthy and safe environment that we can.”

Tickets are digital and concessions are cashless.

Also as with football, UA is only issuing mobile tickets to the event, though Heeke said fans can arrange for a printed ticket if necessary. Staffers will be on hand in the event of issues, though fans are encouraged to download tickets to Apple Wallet or Google Pay before arriving, if possible.

While some UA fans experienced significant delays entering the Sept. 11 football home opener against San Diego State, Heeke said the issues with security screening, ticketing and other entrance bottlenecks have been ironed out. In addition, McKale Center has more points of entry than Arizona Stadium, and a much smaller capacity.

Concession stands will only accept credit or debit cards, though a “reverse” ATM will be available to issue debit cards in exchange for cash.

A multi-level shooting contest has been added.

After the traditional Arizona Adaptive Athletics game and introductions, the Wildcats will hold a shooting contest that involves both players and student fans.

Four teams of two students and two players each will compete to make a layup, free throw, 3-point shot and a halfcourt shot. Two teams will face each other on opposite sides of the court, with the winner facing the winner between another pair of teams.

Bennedict Mathurin has extra motivation.

None of the Wildcats were allowed to have family watch them at home games last season, except for the opener against Grambling, and none of the international players. But in a video UA posted to social media, associate head coach Jack Murphy surprised Mathurin by bringing in his sister and guardian after they arrived from his hometown of Montreal to watch him this weekend.

Expected to be one of the Wildcats’ scoring leaders this season, Mathurin is also participating in a dunk contest along with Koloko, wing Dalen Terry and powerful lefty Azuolas Tubelis.

Both Mathurin and Tubelis made FIBA’s list of top five plays for their dunks in the quarterfinal round of the U19 World Cup in July.

The teams may be mixed up.

To be coached by Murphy and assistant coach Riccardo Fois, the Red and Blue teams might give fans a chance to see top players compete against each other — and with each other.

“We’ll probably play a half where the teams are — quote, unquote — pretty even and probably play a half where maybe it’s tilted more to one side just to see how guys play together,” Lloyd said.

It’s still a major recruiting event, too.

Under Miller, the Red-Blue Game morphed from a fan-friendly scrimmage into a heavily promoted preseason celebration intended to impress recruits and fans alike, with almost all of the Wildcats’ top recruiting targets on hand every year. Lloyd said he might tweak some of the event in future years but he, too, will have some coveted targets on hand.

UA commit Dylan Anderson is expected to attend as part of his official visit, while top 2023 target Kylan Boswell of Corona, California, and AZ Compass Prep is scheduled to take an unofficial visit along with 2023 Phoenix Mountain Pointe guard Tru Washington and 2024 forward Carter Bryant of Orange County.

Contact sports reporter Bruce Pascoe at 573-4146 or On Twitter @brucepascoe

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