TUCSON, Ariz. — On an afternoon when more than 14,000 Arizona showed up to get the first glimpses of a team that is predicted to play deep into March — and to celebrate one of its four Final Four teams of the past — they saw a freshman state his case as the best player on the court.
And, it wasn’t phenom Aaron Gordon.
Instead, it was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who all but stole the show — even if it was just a scrimmage.
“Rondae played very well, almost better than he’s been practicing,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said after Red defeated Blue 44-38 in front of 14,252 fans at McKale Center. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised with Rondae in that he really listens and is a willing learner — not that I didn’t think he wouldn’t be.”
Miller added that Hollis-Jefferson is eager to learn and determined to improve.
“One of the reasons why he played so well is because of how he conducts himself and how hard he works in practice,” Miller said.
Sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski led the Red with 18 points, going 6 for 7 from the field.
For the Blue, Hollis-Jefferson, a lanky 6-foot-7 lefty from Chester, Pa., was deft and smooth around the basket, going 8 of 12 for 18 points and making his presence known with a dunk for his first basket. He wasn’t made available to the media after the game.
“He was on fire and came out really aggressive; he played real well out there,” said Brandon Ashley, who finished with 14 points for the Blue. “His energy level has always been big for his game.”
Junior Nick Johnson, who sealed the Red’s win with a late steal and basket, said “It was the same ol’ Rondae.”
Where the freshman lands in the rotation is yet to be determined. It will be more due to his defense than offense, although he showed flashes of offensive skill in the 24-minute scrimmage. He finished around the rim consistently and looked confident doing it.
What may be the Hollis-Jefferson’s most comforting quality is his pesky, long-armed defense. He has the ability to defend both guards and forwards and, at 6-7, has the reach of a 7-footer.
“He has a lot of talent, (but) he still has to learn college defense,” Miller said. “He’s just going to continue to improve on. But he has unbelievable length and size and quickness. His talent level on defense is really high.”
His potential matches Arizona’s on that side of the ball. Not coincidentally, he will play a big role in deciding whether the Cats reach that potential.
Miller pointed out that the defense in the scrimmage may have played a part in the struggled on offense, as Arizona struggled to hit shots from the perimeter. He added that the defense is ahead of the offense at this point and that “we could be a very good defensive team (with) a chance to be excellent.”
Either way, the offense has some work to do to catch up. No official shot chart was taken, so it was hard to determine team percentages, but more shots were missed than hit. It wasn’t even close, actually, and at times, it wasn’t pretty, either.
“I don’t look at us as generating a lot of good shots in that scrimmage,” Miller said.
He added, “Our shooting is something we have to work on. We have to take good ones. We’re a team that will have to pound the ball inside and get out in transition.”
It didn’t help that perhaps the team’s best shooter, guard Gabe York, is playing at about 70 percent. He hurt his ankle earlier in the week and also has a pulled hamstring.
But what does looking promising is Arizona’s very apparent want to share the ball. And although some of the passes weren’t turned into assists, there is a desire to share the basketball, and that should result in quality opportunities with more familiarity.
“That’s going to be our biggest thing this year,” said Johnson. “(It’ll) be moving the ball a little bit and getting the ball to the big fella … stuff like that.”
NOTES: Arizona’s 1994 Final Four team was honored before the game and at halftime. Two members of that team are currently on the coaching staff: Former All-American point guard Damon Stoudamire is an assistant coach, and former center Joseph Blair is an undergraduate assistant. … 6-foot-10 transfer Zach Peters did not play, although he was deemed eligible by the NCAA last month after transferring from Kansas earlier this year. Miller said Peters is “doing everything we do on the team,” but UA is still being cautious with Peters’ health due to a his history of concussions in recent years. Miller hasn’t offered a timetable for when Peters could get in a game.