Victor Shamas, Ph.D.
After all the hype and anticipation, Saturday’s Red-Blue game finally gave me and 10 thousand other fans a first-hand look at Sean Miller’s No. 2 ranked squad. The game was sold out so fast that I found myself standing outside of McKale like a beggar, trying to score a ticket. Thanks to the late-arriving couple who handed me their extra ticket, I made my way into the arena, just in time for the fire-breathing player intros.
Forget all the distractions—the unfinished McKale renovation, the pyrotechnics, and the yawn-inducing slam dunk contest (OK, I admit that Stanley Johnson’s winning dunk almost made it worthwhile). The game itself was the main attraction. I waited all summer for this first chance to assess the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Here is my take:
- TJ is the difference maker. Because of his floor leadership, the Red squad took an early lead that it never relinquished. McConnell is undoubtedly the most irreplaceable member of this year’s team. His playmaking is a thing of beauty (6 assists), even though he played far from a perfect game (3 turnovers). When he’s on the bench, the quality of play will drop considerably. Jackson-Cartwright does not look ready to run the team. His unsteady playmaking resulted in four turnovers to only two assists, although at 5’8” he somehow managed to grab four rebounds. York did significantly better (3 assists, one turnover), perhaps well enough to earn PT at the one. But he will never be an elite level point guard.
- Scoring will come from the wings. Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson combined for 30 points. Going head-to-head, each of them had to cover possibly the toughest opponent either will face this year. RHJ picked up where he left off last year—confident, wily and determined to get inside. Only this year, he has a noticeably improved touch that was evident from his first bucket, a 15-foot banker, and his smooth-as-silk free-throw shooting. Johnson is exactly as advertised: strong, athletic, and high-energy, with great court awareness. He looks and acts like he can just impose his will on the game.
- Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon will be missed. Both players, who were inducted into the Ring of Honor at halftime, brought a defensive intensity that will be hard to replace. Our main frontline guys—Tarczewski, Ashley, RHJ and Johnson—combined for one block and zero steals. Granted, the Red-Blue game is never a defensive battle. But to compete for a championship, this team is going to need much better interior defense.
- The new bigs can play. Ristic impressed me with his arsenal of offensive moves, particularly a hook shot that looked unstoppable. Zeus couldn’t defend it, and I doubt there is anyone in college basketball that can. The knock on Ristic is that he’s soft—a criticism that is supported by his measly two rebounds in 18 minutes. But his defense showed glimpses of promise. He blocked a shot and made two steals inside. Meanwhile, Victor proved himself a scrappy, opportunistic player who filled the stat sheet with 12 points (on 6-8 shooting), four rebounds, and two steals. His weakness seems to be his shooting touch, which is not pretty. Even so, he will earn minutes because good things happen when he’s on the floor.
- The two is up for grabs. Who earned the most minutes at shooting guard? Based on what I saw on Saturday, the answer is: nobody. York, who is presumably the team’s sharpshooter, went 0-4 from three-point range. The most impressive thing about York has always been his rebounding, which is remarkable for a guy his size (four boards.) Pitts showed nice touch from outside but was invisible for much of the game. Allen had flashes of brilliance too. He has quick hands and a decent-looking midrange shot. But after the first three minutes of the game, his most memorable play was a steal followed by a missed breakaway dunk.
- Zeus is solid. Down to just five percent body fat, Tarczewski is a formidable presence inside. His dominance of the defensive boards is a big reason why the Reds were able to hold off the Blues. He led all players with nine rebounds; nobody else had more than four.
- Ashley is an enigma. Is he back completely from his foot injury? Based on his play Saturday, I would say: maybe. Until the last few minutes, his performance can best be described as “understated.” Ashley did very little to distinguish himself on either end of the court until his Blue squad began to mount a comeback at the end. Then he seemed to come alive, grabbing boards and hitting shots. He ended up with just seven points and three rebounds in 20 minutes. Most disturbing was his poor ball-handling, which resulted in four turnovers. For a player as steady as Ashley, this is a cause for at least a bit of concern.
- Can anyone hit a three? Both teams combined for 4-16 (25%) shooting from behind the arc. If this number doesn’t improve, we will see a lot of zone defenses thrown at us this season. Any opposing coach with half a brain will collapse on the interior and force the Cats to beat his team from the outside. The good news is that Ashley and RHJ both showed some promise from three-point range. If they can hit a few threes with consistency, that will definitely put pressure on opposing defenses.
Clearly, the Red-Blue game left some questions unanswered, but it also displayed the team’s enormous talent, balance and depth. As usual, there were some pleasant surprises—especially among the newcomers. Now, we await some of the major tests that lie ahead, including Gonzaga and Michigan.