A little more than five weeks from now, when Arizona begins the 2021-22 regular season, very little about the team may resemble the version that was on display during Saturday’s Red-Blue game. It’ll be the same players, on the same court, but beyond that it could be completely different.
“I’m learning these guys and they’re learning me,” coach Tommy Lloyd said after the scrimmage, which saw the Blue Team win 53-39 in front of 10,663 fans at McKale Center. “I have a kind of a general idea of how I want to play, but it’s not all so set in stone. We’re gonna make adjustments based on personnel and whatever we determine will make these guys the best team and most competitive team possible.”
For one, the Wildcats didn’t have sharpshooting guard Pelle Larsson, who sat out the game while recovering from foot surgery. Lloyd referred to him as a “main main guy” for the UA, which is expecting him back sometime in November.
Secondly, the “teams” in action were fluid, with Kim Aiken Jr., Oumar Ballo, Justin Kier and Bennedict Mathurin playing on the red team for the first half before switching to the blue side for the final 10-minute period.
All told, the two squads shot 51.4 percent from the field, making 8 of 23 3-pointers. Four of those were by Aiken, who was perfect from outside in the first half and finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting.
“I think the 3-point shooting is gonna be huge for the team this year, it’s something I can keep building off of,” said Aiken, a graduate transfer from Eastern Washington who actually committed to the UA twice. He backed off that first pledge after Sean Miller was fired, transferring to Washington State before coming back to the UA after he wasn’t admitted to WSU’s graduate program.
In the interim he said he worked on his shooting with former Gonzaga star Corey Kispert, leading to his strong performance Saturday that made up for a 1-for-7 effort when Eastern Washington played at McKale last season.
“They had me guarding him,” wing Dalen Terry noted. “That’s why he went 1 for 7.”
It was the first time McKale had fans in it for a UA men’s basketball game since March 2020, and Terry said it took some getting used to after last season when “you were hearing everybody’s shoes squeaking.
“Just hearing the crowd after you score or make good plays, it just makes a player feel better,” said Terry, who was scoreless in the game but had four rebounds and two assists. He also won the pregame dunk contest, performing in a Lute Olson-era blue Arizona jersey and sealing it with an alley-oop from Justin Kier that was bounced to him from in the bleachers.
Lloyd liked the dunk, but liked Terry’s in-game play better.
“You know what was more impressive for me? Dalen drove the ball hard baseline once and then in a tough spot jump stopped, pivot, pivot, pivot, and found Azuolas (Tubelis) for a 15-footer,” Lloyd said. “I mean, that, to me was more impressive than an alley-oop dunk bounced off the floor from the stands. I don’t think we’re gonna do that this season.”
Mathurin had 16 points split between the two squads, Tubelis made all seven of his shots for 14 points and added seven rebounds and seven Arizona players had at least two assists apiece.
Lloyd’s only big criticism from the afternoon was the play of Team Blue early in the second half, after he loaded it up with rotation players, saying they came out flat.
“You can’t come out and start halves like that, because even if the opponent is perceived lesser … you’ve got to respect them and you’ve got to give me your best shot,” he said. “It’s a great learning experience. We have film, these are live bullets. Even though it’s us against us, you’re in front of a crowd. And now we’d be able to watch the film, and the great thing about film is you can reinforce a lot of the positives and build on them and then you can find some mistakes and some weaknesses and try to address them. This time of year, guys this is literally practice No. 4 today. There’s a long ways to go. We’re still in a heavy install … phase of the season. Overall I feel pretty good where we’re at.”
Arizona’s next public competition is Nov. 1, when it hosts Division II Eastern New Mexico in an exhibition. The Wildcats likely will play a closed-door “secret” scrimmage against another Division I opponent prior to that.