TUCSON – A sea of red-clad students and fans entered the historic McKale Memorial Center with a sense of anticipation as they came to get their first glimpse at their 2023-24 Arizona Wildcats Friday at the annual men’s basketball Red-Blue Showcase .
The aroma of freshly popped popcorn, the chill of cool air conditioning and the bass thump from the song “Sandstorm” electrified the eager crowd that is anxiously awaiting the start of the college basketball season.
Few fan bases compare to a sold-out college basketball crowd at the University of Arizona. The Old Pueblo rallies around all UArizona athletics but especially the hoops program.
The marching band only adds to the excitement, with cheerleaders and Wilbur T. Wildcat and Wilma Wildcat, Arizona’s mascots, joining in the festivities.
“Tucson, what’s good? I f—— love you guys,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said at center court after player introductions.
School pride in Tucson extends beyond the city. Former Wildcats stars such as Gilbert Arenas, Aaron Gordon, Mike Bibby and 1997 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Miles Simon were in attendance for the event.
However, the show was stolen by fellow alumni Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, who hosted the event as a part of their “Road Trippin’” podcast with Allie Clifton.
“There is no experience like this,” Jefferson said. “When my kids get a chance to see that people go crazy over just an intrasquad finish and it’s sold out and they have jerseys with their names on the back, they’re going to go crazy. It’s special.”
Intrasquad scrimmages are often taken lightly, but almost everything about basketball at Arizona is serious business.
“I remember Coach O (Lute Olson) was very serious,” Frye said. “‘This is a regular game and this is going to determine, other than Jason (Gardner), Rick (Anderson), and Luke (Walton), who is going to start.’ So we took that game very serious, as far as I remember, and it was pretty intense afterward.”
Friday’s event started with a game played between the Arizona Adaptive Athletics – a wheelchair and adaptive sports community that has seven competitive teams. It’s the largest and most successful collegiate-based program in the country.
Following the Arizona Adaptive Athletics game, the arena went dark and a highlight video rolled on the Jumbotron, displaying big moments from the program’s past. The cheers became louder as each new highlight appeared.
And then the real party began.
The stars were out for it, too. In addition to the former Wildcats like Bibby, Simon, Frye, Jefferson and Andre Iguodala, who were in attendance at McKale, Steve Kerr and Walton joined in via Zoom during halftime.
After team introductions, Llyod took the stage and, in Bear Down fashion, took over the ZonaZoo at McKale Center, where the Wildcats have dominated attendance records in the Pac-12 for the past 37 years.
Winning over the city is something Lloyd has taken pride in over his first two seasons at Arizona. The Showcase, which includes the scrimmage and skills competitions such as a dunk contest and 3-point shooting tournament, is a chance for the former Gonzaga assistant to connect with the rabid Arizona fanbase.
“My first one (Red-Blue game), I think the attendance was obviously the lowest,” he said. “And I get it. I come here, and I was a little of an outside-the-box hire. It’s fun to see it build, and I honestly think – in my mind – we’re just starting to scratch the surface of this event. And I think the next years (we) can really make it something special.”
After Lloyd’s pep talk to the crowd, Jefferson, Frye, and Clifton took over as hosts and spiced up the content with a steady stream of jokes and banter.
The first team event held was the 3-point contest, where sophomore Filip Borovicanin faced Caleb Love, a senior transfer from North Carolina, in a heated shootout. Borovicanin took home the trophy after he caught fire on the last rack, scoring a high of 19 points.
“You’re just letting it rip,” Borovicanin said of his approach to the competition. “You just take the ball off the rack and just shoot. The first shot may be a little nervous if you make it or don’t, but that’s pretty much it.”
Following Borovicanin’s victory, newcomers stole the dunk contest.
San Diego State transfer senior Keshad Johnson and freshman KJ Lewis displayed bounce and creativity with their dunks of choice.
It all came down to Lewis’s last dunk and one last moment to impress the judges. He decided to grab 7-foot teammate Oumar Ballo from the bench and position him just in front of the restricted circle.
The McKale Center stopped and, for a brief moment, took a gasp when Lewis took flight and recreated the Air Jordan logo as he soared over Ballo.
The crowd erupted as soon as his feet hit the ground and he did a little strut on the baseline. There were some boos, but everyone turned their heads toward Iguodala, a guest judge who won the 2015 NBA Finals MVP award.
Iguodala, apparently hard to impress, was the only judge in the bunch who awarded only a nine for the spectacular dunk.
“I was very anxious and nervous, you know, growing up an Arizona fan it was something I dreamed of,” Lewis said. “I went up to him (Andre) on the side and I said I felt like Aaron Gordon when he got robbed that night (in the 2020 NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest). So it was a little funny.”
The scrimmage showed Tucson what to expect for this year’s Wildcats, who are ranked 11th in ESPN’s way-too-early top 25, after a shocking first-round upset to 15-seeded Princeton in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Love and Ballo stole the show with their ability to score and dominate in the paint. Meanwhile, a point guard battle looks to be brewing with Alabama sophomore transfer Jaden Bradley and sophomore Kylan Boswell both showing strong playmaking and defensive skills.
The high-flying combo of Johnson and Lewis should also make a massive defensive impact as the season unfolds.
Lloyd and Co. have an extremely deep, disciplined and versatile squad that will be difficult to beat, and with a tough out-of-conference schedule that includes powerhouses like Duke, Michigan State and Wisconsin, it will feel as if March has come early.
“I think we got a good group, a good balance and good numbers,” Lloyd said of the Wildcats.