TUCSON — Arizona spent a few minutes before its Red-Blue game to honor its 1988 Final Four team, one of the most popular and successful teams not just at the university, but in Tucson history.
This year’s Wildcats a long way to go to reach those lofty heights, but it appears they’re going to be pretty good, too.
Playing in front of home fans for the first time, Arizona flashed its athleticism and versatility during its annual scrimmage on Sunday, giving the sold-out crowd at McKale Center a glimpse of why expectations are back up in the desert.
“There’s a lot to like,” said Harvey Mason Jr., a member of the 1988 team who went on to become a six-time Grammy-winning songwriter and producer. “They’re big, athletic, can get up and down the floor, have a good mix of players. It should be an exciting year.”
Arizona had, by its own lofty standards, a down year in 2011-12 after just missing the Final Four the season before.
The Wildcats won 23 games, but didn’t make the NCAA tournament and had the added insult of losing to Bucknell in the opening round of the NIT at home.
Arizona is expected to rebound this season behind another stellar recruiting class by coach Sean Miller and a group of proven veteran players.
The McKale Center was filled long before the opening tip in anticipation of the team’s first scrimmage and to see a bit of the glorious past with most of the 1988 team returning to be honored.
With scouts from four NBA teams in the stands watching, the Wildcats overcome some jittery opening moments to put on an impressive show, flying in for dunks, dropping in 3-pointers and whipping no-look passes.
Returning players Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom led Arizona in scoring, with 20 and 17 points respectively, but there were some impressive performances from the newcomers as well.
The Wildcats still have three weeks before their opener against Charleston Southern at home on Nov. 11, but the initial glimpse looked good.
“I thought our guys did a good job,” Miller said. “As one team scores, you look at the defense. As one team doesn’t score, you look at the offense. You can always put the critical eye on your team, but the one good thing about today is that they had the opportunity to be around 14,500 people, that you had three Pac-12 officials. Anytime you can get your team out there, I think it gets us off to a better start.”
Miller’s previous recruiting class, also among the best in the nation, didn’t hold together.
Forward Sidiki Johnson left the team a month into the season and point guard Josiah Turner, who was suspended twice, was gone after it was over.
The Wildcats still had Johnson, a supremely-athletic guard, and high-motor forward Angelo Chol, with plenty of veterans coming back.
Heady senior Solomon Hill was all-Pac-12 last season and will be able to switch back to his natural position of small forward because of Arizona’s depth. Parrom, a do-everything forward, is healthy again, expected to be a big contributor after his junior season was derailed by the death of his mother and grandmother, along with a shooting in New York that left him with hand a knee injuries.
Point guard Jordin Mayes also is healthy after a nagging foot injury hampered him for most of last season.
Added to that core will be an impressive group of newcomers that includes guard Mark Lyons, a graduate transfer from Xavier, where helped lead the Musketeers to the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. The senior was the best player on the court at times during the scrimmage, showing off his quickness and ability to get to the rim while avoiding the caught-in-the-spotlight jitters some of his teammates had in the early going.
“This wasn’t his first big game,” Miller said.
Miller’s latest recruiting class is expected to help turn what was a weakness last season into a strength this year.
Kaleb Tarczewski, a 7-foot center, 6-10 forward Grant Jerrett and 6-8 forward Brandon Ashley are among the top incoming big men in the country and should give Arizona plenty of depth, not to mention versatility.
Jerrett has been one of Arizona’s best players in practice and was impressive during the scrimmage, knocking down a 3-pointer and showing some impressive moves inside.
Tarczewski had a rough first half, missing all five of his shots, but settled down in the second to score 10 points.
Another freshman, 6-2 guard Gabe York, has athletic ability that matches Johnson, evidenced by the two dunks he used to win the team’s dunk contest before the scrimmage: a windmill over a student manager and another dunk over both Chol and 6-10 Matt Korcheck.
The mix and potential of this year’s team was a big reason McKale Center was sold out for the Red-Blue game for the second straight year and had members of the ’88 team among those expecting big things.
“I see the guys have a lot of athletic ability,” said Kenny Lofton, a member of the 1988 team who was a six-time All-Star in 17 major league seasons. “If they can just jell and play together, it’s going to be something special for them.”