NEW YORK – The game was all anyone could have wanted, especially after having to wait a little extra time because of a triple overtime affair right before it. Two top teams battled it out for much of the game, each with a much-talked-about freshman. The end result confirmed what some suspected beforehand: Sean Miller has Arizona primed to make a national title run.
It may be November, and coaches and players are loathe to make such pronouncements now. But we’ll say it: Arizona’s 72-66 win over Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship shows us how good this Wildcat team can be.
While many have talked about the recruiting classes that Kentucky has put together in recent years, as well as the one Duke has just put together for next season, Arizona has quietly stockpiled talent the last few years. They brought in two McDonald’s All-Americans last year in Brandon Ashley and Grant Jerrett, along with guys who weren’t far off in Kaleb Tarczewksi and Gabe York. (Tarczewski did play in the Jordan Classic after his senior year.) This year, Aaron Gordon is joined by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. There’s another good group already signed for next year right behind them, too.
On top of that, before any of them arrived on campus they had the perfect glue guy in Nick Johnson. Few play as well within the team concept as he does, and he’s also a solid defender.
Jerrett left early for the NBA Draft after last season, but all of the others are still in Tucson. And with T.J. McConnell now there to run the show after transferring from Duquesne, it’s all starting to come together. Most of all, this team’s talent plays together, and that stood out as much as anything to Miller about his star freshman.
“He’s a guy you love to have him on your team because he’s a great teammate and it seems like everything flows better when he’s out there, even though he’s not a point guard,” Miller said of Gordon.
Gordon didn’t have a stat line for the ages on Friday; in fact, it was somewhat ordinary. In 31 minutes he scored ten points and grabbed seven rebounds, handed out four assists with just one turnover. His value came from his presence, especially defensively since he spent a lot of time guarding Duke stars Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, who combined for 40 points but needed 35 shots to get there. Hollis-Jefferson also spent time guarding both and could be the team’s unsung hero.
Five Wildcats scored between ten and 15 points on Friday, showing the balance this team has. York scored just seven but is very capable of scoring more. The Wildcats had 18 assists on 23 made field goals, and Miller thinks this team can still get better offensively as they find out how to use the great deal of versatility this team possesses as Gordon, Ashley, Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson all can do a lot of things.
“We’re an all-around team,” said Johnson. “It was pretty even all the way around.”
As much as this team’s talent, chemistry and versatility will go a long way this season, another intangible showed up in New York. This team showed it can handle adversity, with a couple of players standing out in that regard. York, who played sparingly as a freshman on a team loaded with shooting guards, did it on Wednesday to help them complete the comeback in the second half, and Johnson did it on Friday after foul trouble and some turnovers early.
“It’s always good when some of your key players can put kind of some adversity or bad play behind them and finish so strong,” said Miller. “That’s a quality that we really gained by coming here.”
Arizona won’t be number one in any of the polls next week, and based on what the teams ahead of them have done this week there’s not really a case to be made for that. But the polls don’t matter in college basketball, and they can’t tell you what Friday’s win over Duke did about this team. The Wildcats have talent, some experience and chemistry, and they can play at both ends of the floor with a lot of different lineups. Their recruiting the last couple of years is paying off. That could put them in position to be at the top of the only poll that counts, which comes out in April.