College Basketball Nation: Aaron Gordon

3-point shot: Major replacements

May, 16, 2014
May 16
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on how three key players from the 2013-14 season -- Aaron Craft, Shabazz Napier and Aaron Gordon -- believe they'll be replaced.


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Arizona proved it’s above any one player with its 70-64 win over San Diego State. The Wildcats withstood Nick Johnson's shooting struggles and Kaleb Tarczewski's foul troubles to advance to the Elite Eight and a matchup with Wisconsin.

Here are five observations from their victory:

• The first thought from Arizona’s win is how in the world did the Wildcats pull it off? The simple answer was defense. The Wildcats held SDSU to just 38.9 percent shooting from the field. But it wasn’t entirely because Zona was just so suffocating. The The Aztecs have been offensively challenged all season and when they should have held a bigger lead, they allowed the Wildcats to stay within striking distance. Xavier Thames did his best to takeover the scoring load -- he had 25 points -- but he was 9 of 22 from the field.

• The Aztecs made it plain that they wouldn’t let Johnson beat them. He scored 23 in the regular season meeting. SDSU coach Steve Fisher put 6-foot-7 forward Dwayne Polee II on the 6-foot-3 guard. Polee’s length clearly bothered Johnson early and even when Polee was no longer defending him, he still couldn’t find the basket. He missed his first nine shots and his 10th -- a bank shot with him driving left -- rimmed out just as it seemed it would be his first make. He was scoreless until making a 3-pointer with 1:51 that gave the Wildcats their biggest lead at the time. Johnson finished with 15 points thanks to making 10 of 10 free throws.

• What a difference a Polee makes. The junior from Los Angeles didn’t play in the first meeting for disciplinary reasons. His defense on Johnson was only part of his impact. With Thames struggling to shoot in the first half, Polee provided an offensive burst for the Aztecs. Two of his baskets came off steals, including a thunderous dunk in front of Aaron Gordon. He knocked down two 3-pointers too and scored 10 points of his 13 points in the first half.

• Small ball worked well for Arizona. Tarczewski picked up his third foul of the first half with five minutes left and he got his fourth foul barely more than 60 seconds into the second half. With their 7-foot center absent for most of the game, the Wildcats played with forwards Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and three guards. They got beat on the boards, but Hollis-Jefferson pumped in 15 points and five rebounds before fouling out. Gordon had an identical line with 15 points and added seven rebounds.

T.J. McConnell didn’t exactly carry Arizona, but his leadership guided them in the right direction. In the first half with the Aztecs taking control of the game, McConnell provided an emotional boost -- first from his defense, then by his scoring. McConnell finished with 11 points and five rebounds.

Video: Freshman Science -- Sweet 16

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
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The national spotlight has been placed on a handful of marquee freshmen this season, but only Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon remain in the NCAA tournament. Take a look inside the numbers to see why the Arizona and Kentucky standouts are still dancing.

Tournament preview: Pac-12

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
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The Pac-12 has followed the script for the most part.

Entering this season, anyone could recognize Arizona’s perch atop the conference with McDonald’s All American Aaron Gordon joining one of the nation’s best frontcourts.

Steve Alford, meanwhile, had come to Los Angeles to save UCLA.

Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal all looked like potential NCAA tourney teams.

But even though we knew that about this league, no conference is teetering on a bigger platform of uncertainty right now. Maybe this is a three-bid league. Maybe it’s a six- or seven-bid league.

The Pac-12 picked the perfect city, Las Vegas, for this toss-up conference tournament.

[+] EnlargeArizona/Oregon
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsRondae Hollis-Jefferson's versatility has helped Arizona move forward in the absence of Brandon Ashley.
What’s at stake?

On Feb. 1, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that changed Arizona’s season and program. Ashley, a sophomore, stretched the floor in ways that few big men can.

But Sean Miller’s recruiting spoils in recent years have been a godsend to the program. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the starting five a true small forward and creates a mismatch nightmare for every frontcourt that faces Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Everything is pointing to Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year, and the Wildcats earning a top seed and a place in Anaheim. But what could mess that up? A loss to Washington or Utah -- a pair of sub-50 teams in the RPI -- in Thursday’s quarterfinals wouldn’t help.

A quarterfinal loss to Oregon State (if the Beavers were to get past Oregon in the first round) could demote UCLA, too. And it’s not like the Bruins are hot right now (2-3 in their past five games).

But neither has much to worry about right now, it seems. They’re dancing.

As for the rest of the league? Well, that’s not necessarily the case.

Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Cal are all fighting to lock up berths in the NCAA tournament. Oregon, which defeated Arizona over the weekend, is probably the safest member of the group. The Ducks likely feel secure after defeating the Wildcats, but that buzz will die fast if they lose to Oregon State on Wednesday.

Stanford is searching for its first NCAA tournament berth under Johnny Dawkins. An NIT bid for Arizona State, which enters the conference tourney after suffering back-to-back road losses to Oregon State and Oregon, would be disappointing. The Sun Devils and Cardinal could be matched up on Thursday in a quarterfinal game with high stakes.

Colorado continues to deal with the question, "Who are the Buffs without Spencer Dinwiddie?" Including its Jan. 12 loss to Washington when Dinwiddie suffered his season-ending knee injury, Tad Boyle’s program is 7-8 without the previously projected first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Colorado has a chance to prove it would still be a respectable addition to the field and a solid seed with a run this week. Its overtime road loss to Cal over the weekend didn’t help.

Team with the most to gain

On Feb. 1, Justin Cobbs drove off a pick and connected on a 17-footer that beat the buzzer and then-No. 1 Arizona. Cal fans stormed the court and all seemed well for Mike Montgomery’s program.

That thrill, however, didn’t last. Cal has gone 4-5 since then but enters the conference tournament following a weekend overtime victory over Colorado.

Cal is still alive. The Bears are currently in Joe Lunardi’s "First Four Out" grouping. So a couple wins, beginning with a potential matchup against Colorado in Thursday’s quarterfinals, could be the difference for Cal.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Pac-12 tourney affects the league’s pool of at-large berths once they’re announced on Selection Sunday.

It could be bigger than that, though. Few leagues have faced as much speculation about coaches who might be on the hot seat. This might be a pivotal tourney for Dawkins, Arizona State's Herb Sendek, Washington State's Ken Bone and Oregon State's Craig Robinson.

Video: Arizona 79, Stanford 66

March, 2, 2014
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Aaron Gordon had 19 points and 15 rebounds to lead No. 3 Arizona past Stanford 79-66.

Video: Wooden Watch: Top freshman

February, 1, 2014
Feb 1
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Rece Davis, Jalen Rose, Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas take a look at the five freshmen on the Wooden Midseason Top 25 list.

Freshman Focus: All six in action Saturday

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
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One of the main stories in college basketball this season has been the performance of the freshman phenoms. All six of the freshmen who have been included in ESPN's Freshman Focus will be in action Saturday. It's one of three remaining days in the regular season that they will all play on the same day.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse Orange
Although not the most-hyped freshman entering the season, no Division I freshman has more win shares, according to College Basketball Reference. At 3.8, Ennis trails only Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the top spot among all ACC players.

Ennis has shined with his clutch play. Syracuse has been tied or behind at the five-minute mark in the second half in five games this season, including in each of its last two. The Orange outscored their opponents by 37 points the rest of the way in those eventual wins.

Jabari Parker, Duke Blue Devils
Parker and Duke will go head-to-head with Ennis and Syracuse this Saturday. Parker has shined for Duke this season, with 12 20-point games, already tied for sixth-most all-time among ACC freshmen.

Entering Friday, Parker is one of just seven players in all of Division I this season to average at least 18 points and eight rebounds per game. He’s also improving as the season’s going on, averaging 18.8 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in his last four ACC games (10.5 PPG, 5.0 RPG in first four ACC games).

Julius Randle, Kentucky Wildcats
No school has had more highly-regarded freshmen recently than Kentucky, but as the chart on the right shows, Randle's offense is exceeding what Nerlens Noel and Anthony Davis did to start their freshman years.

Randle leads all Division I freshman with 11 double-doubles this season, three more than Noah Vonleh of Indiana.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona Wildcats
Gordon has played a key role in Arizona's start, which also happens to be the longest win streak in school history.

Although he’s struggled shooting the last few games, he remains one of the best rebounders in the freshman class, leading all Pac-12 freshmen in offensive and defensive rebounds per game.

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas Jayhawks
Wiggins is coming off a big night in Kansas’ win Wednesday over the 16th-ranked Iowa State Cyclones. He scored a career-high 29 points, the second straight game he set a career high in scoring.

Wiggins' ability to get easier shots up close to the hoop is his strong point. He leads the Big 12 (and is third in the nation) in transition points per play, and has shot nearly 73 percent from the paint in his last two games, well above his average over the first 18 games (55.8%).

Joel Embiid, Kansas Jayhawks
Unlike his teammate Wiggins, Embiid started the season under the radar among the freshman class, but has put his name among the best in the class with his improvement during the season.

In November and December, Embiid averaged 10.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. In January, those numbers are up to 12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.
If there are any weaknesses on this Arizona roster -- and there are few -- then they can all be summed up like this: Sometimes even the best have bad nights, especially on the road.

That's the only legitimate explanation for what happened to No. 1 Arizona in its occasionally turbulent outing against Stanford. Utah gave the Wildcats trouble at home before that. Both teams pushed the Wildcats. Somehow.

Well, it's not the only explanation. In Arizona's 65-56 victory over Utah last Sunday, the Wildcats made only three of their 14 3-point attempts. Freshman star Aaron Gordon struggled in a 3-for-13 outing. He went 2-for-10 in a 60-57 victory over Stanford on Wednesday. The team missed 11 of 29 free throws.

But the Wildcats held on both nights.

The challenges, however, solidified what we all know about conference play. Regardless of the league, it's never easy. It's never a breeze. From the Missouri Valley to the Big 12, playing 16 or 18 games against familiar foes creates pitfalls at some point in the year, even for elite teams.

So it's not prudent to overlook Arizona's next test, a road game at Cal on Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network). The Bears are spiraling downward, locked in a three-game losing skid with the No. 1 team in the country coming to town. That's not good. But they're desperate.

And Justin Cobbs (15.5 points per game, 6.0 assists per game) could have a big night. Maybe the Cal team that scored 96 on a ranked Oregon squad will show up.

Considering their recent efforts, however, that's unlikely. In reality, the Bears would need a near-perfect game to beat Arizona.

Sean Miller can win games in many ways.

That's the benefit of having so many capable athletes. Miller doesn't rely on one guy in clutch situations because he doesn’t have to. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (perhaps the future of the program), Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski, Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell can all make plays, offensively or defensively, to give Arizona a boost in those scenarios.

Few teams in the past decade have had the luxury of employing so many gifted athletes.

The road, where the Wildcats have displayed some of their vulnerabilities, is often the platform for disaster, though.

No, they shouldn't have much trouble with Cal. But sometimes strange things happen on the road. Arizona's past two games have re-emphasized that notion.

So expect the Wildcats to come out strong and remove that possibility early.

Then again, maybe they'll end up in another scrap.

Video: Checking in with top freshmen

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
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In his weekly report, Jay Bilas takes a look at the six best freshmen in college basketball.
What we’re reading while we take a moment to get caught up on the NBA. (How is it the All-Star break already?!) Submit links via Twitter.
  • Think Joel Embiid was the biggest snub from Wednesday’s midseason Wooden list? Think again: “McDermott was a first-team All-American last season, but who could have possibly foreseen the senior year that Lamar Patterson is having for Pittsburgh? Patterson wasn't even honorable mention All-Big East in 2012-13. In fact it's conceivable that by the end of the season Patterson may rise to the top of this list as my national player of the year.”
  • “He sees the brass ring, like three inches away from his nose. He knows all he has to do is keep his nose to the grindstone for another couple of months, and there’s a really good possibility he might be able to go pro.” That’s what Paul Stauskas, father of Michigan guard (and sudden Big Ten player of the year candidate) Nik Stauskas, told SI.com’s Brian Hamilton after the Wolverines’ 77-70 win at Wisconsin last weekend. The Stauskii were no doubt high on adrenaline after Nik’s ruthless performance, but still, “another couple of months” is the kind of quote that might get on Michigan coaches’ — not to mention Michigan fans’ — nerves. It’s also a reminder that Stauskas’s breakout season has earned plenty of notice from NBA front offices.
  • Michigan State redshirt freshman Kenny Kaminski probably would have had his come-from-nowhere moment even earlier, were it not for his poor defense. Which is why Tom Izzo singled Kaminski out for post-practice work before the Spartans turned it into a moment of solidarity.
  • Dana O’Neil checks in with a fun dispatch from Tucson, Ariz., and a revelation about Aaron Gordon that boggles the mind.
  • A clean and colorful mockup of Creighton’s shot chart against Villanova reveals that not only did Creighton make 21 3s in a game, but that 18 of them — 18!!! — came from behind the NBA line. Two days later and the Jays are still finding new and unique ways to pour water on my brain circuits. Unreal. (HT: r/CollegeBasketball, where Villanova fans can only respond in gif form. Naturally.)

Wiggins excels against top competition

January, 17, 2014
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Andrew Wiggins entered the season as the No. 1 recruit in college basketball and projected as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

There’s been some talk about Wiggins falling short of his lofty expectations thus far. Some draft experts believe Duke’s Jabari Parker may have surpassed Wiggins as the projected No. 1 pick.

But Wiggins reminded scouts of his potential on Saturday, when he scored 13 straight Kansas points in the second half of the Jayhawks’ win against Kansas State. On Monday, he posted a career-high 19 rebounds to go along with 17 points in a win at Iowa State.

Despite his inconsistencies, Wiggins has played his best against his toughest competition.

Against ranked teams this season –- Duke, Florida, San Diego State, Kansas State and Iowa State –- Wiggins is averaging 20.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Against unranked opponents, he’s averaging 13.8 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Wiggins has been more efficient and is shooting better from inside the arc and 3-point range against ranked opponents.

Comparing the top three freshmen (based on 2013 ESPN 100 rankings) -- Wiggins, Parker and Julius Randle –- Wiggins is the most efficient offensively against ranked opponents.

Why hasn’t Wiggins taken over games as often as Parker and Randle?

Wiggins has not been featured in the Kansas offense the way the other freshmen have. Most of his offensive production has come within the flow of the offense.

Combining isolations, post-ups and plays in which he is the pick-and-roll ball-handler, Wiggins is averaging about two fewer 1-on-1 plays per game than both Parker and Randle. Wiggins has been more efficient than Randle on those plays despite Randle averaging nearly two-and-a-half more 1-on-1 plays per game.

Where Wiggins really has the edge over Parker and Randle –- and over almost any player -– is in transition.

Wiggins ranks eighth in the country in transition points per play (1.45) among players with at least 45 such plays this season.

While Wiggins may have a long way to go before becoming the next LeBron James, the numbers show he still might be the best prospect in this freshman class.
Calling Arizona-Arizona State a rivalry is a little like calling someone who only plays "Angry Birds" on their phone a “gamer” — it’s technically true but hugely deceptive.

Yes, Arizona State fans hate Arizona. And yeah, Arizona fans probably derive minor joy from lording their historic basketball superiority over their in-state brethren, even if they’d never admit it. Still: Since 1979-80, Arizona is 49-22 against the Sun Devils with an average margin of victory of 8.5 points. In 2013-14, Arizona has been ranked No. 1 for six weeks and, after Sunday night’s 73-53 victory over USC, is 17-0 — the best start in the program’s storied history. The Sun Devils have never had much luck against Arizona. Why would this season, of all seasons, be any different?

All of this illustrates exactly why it feels so insane to say this: Arizona State has a real chance to win at Arizona on Thursday night. Not an “anything can happen in college basketball" chance. A real, actual chance. No, seriously.

[+] EnlargeJordan Bachynski
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesJordan Bachynski can be a game-changer in the middle for Arizona State.
That is not the same as saying the Sun Devils will win, of course; Arizona is the heaviest of favorites. (Wildcats fans, I beg of you: Please review this sentence before you hit send.) The Wildcats are more talented and more balanced and have been almost flawlessly coached by Sean Miller this season. They’ve played a tougher schedule and bested it. They also have this guy. They’re just better. But through that underdog status, the Sun Devils’ real, actual chance can be tangibly traced to the way they match up with the Wildcats on the defensive end — the way they’ve quietly made opposing offenses miserable.

Through 17 games, including Sunday’s 15-point loss at UCLA, Arizona State opponents have the 13th-worst effective field goal percentage in the country: just 43.1 percent. Against the Sun Devils, opposing offenses shoot just 28.9 percent from 3-point range and 43.0 percent from 2-point range, and have 15.5 percent of their shots blocked. That last part is especially key. ASU center Jordan Bachynski blocks 4.8 shots per game and 13.9 percent of available attempts. He also clears 21.9 percent of his team’s available defensive rebounds. It isn’t easy to constantly play help and challenge shots and then recover to clear the glass; few players manage it. Bachynski is one of them, and his presence makes everything ASU opponents do on the interior a grind.

If you want an even minuscule chance of knocking off Arizona, this is an awfully good place to start. Having Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley in the same lineup makes for lots of easy interior buckets, it turns out. According to hoop-math.com, Arizona attempts 35.7 percent of its field goals at the rim, where it shoots an eye-popping 77.8 percent. But if you can nudge the Wildcats out into mid-range territory, their percentage plummets to 29.9 percent.

The Wildcats’ frontcourt is similarly effective in the inverse: Arizona allows opponents to shoot just 16.6 percent of their attempts at the rim. But ASU point guard Jahii Carson might be one of the few players both quick enough to break down the Wildcats’ pack-line membrane and crafty enough to create points afterward.

If Bachynski can protect the rim and Carson can get into the lane on the other end, the Sun Devils could very well find themselves hanging tough in a tight, defensive contest — in striking distance, as they say.

These are monstrous ifs. Arizona will almost certainly win in Tucson on Thursday; an Arizona team this good hasn’t come around in, well, maybe ever. Still, that the Sun Devils have even a striking-distance-level shot against their would-be rivals says just as much about the 7-foot-2 center in Tempe.

Defense first for Aaron Gordon

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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When discussing the "big 4" freshmen -- Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon -- it's easy to talk about the offensive abilities of Wiggins, Parker and Randle.

But what about defense?

Gordon leads all Division I freshmen this season in defensive win shares -- a statistic that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to their team due to their defense.

Wiggins, Parker and Randle all rank outside the top 10 among freshmen in defensive win shares.

The next Blake Griffin?
Coming into college, Gordon was often compared to another athletic big man -- Blake Griffin, who was a freshman at Oklahoma six years ago. Griffin played two college seasons before becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.

The comparison might not be far off. Remember that Griffin did not dominate as a freshman the way he did as a sophomore. In his first season at Oklahoma, he averaged about 15 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent. Gordon's numbers are very similar to Griffin's numbers as a freshman.

Both players are efficient in transition. Gordon is shooting 67 percent in transition compared to Griffin's 64 percent as a freshman. Transition is where Griffin racks up the highlights with the "Lob City" Clippers.

Griffin attacks the rim relentlessly and finishes with authority. Gordon is shooting 55 percent at the rim compared to Griffin's 56 percent as a freshman.

And Gordon is the better jump shooter, shooting 28 percent on jumpers compared to Griffin at just 20 percent as a freshman. Gordon is 7-of-19 on 3-pointers, while Griffin didn't make a single 3-pointer as a freshman.

But again -- what about defense?

Defense wins championships
Gordon is holding opponents to 34 percent shooting as an on-ball defender. Griffin's opponents shot 42 percent as a freshman. Gordon is much better than Griffin was defending the post. Gordon is holding opponents to 40 percent shooting on post-up plays compared to 55 percent for Griffin.

Gordon's defense is a large reason why Arizona has the third-best defensive efficiency in the country. It's also why the Wildcats are 15-0, their best start since 1931-32.

So when you compare Gordon to Griffin or Wiggins, Parker and Randle, don't forget that defense is just as important as offense -- and on defense, Gordon has the edge.

Parker needs room to grow

January, 7, 2014
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DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker said he’s familiar with the term “freshman wall” and even said it’s OK to say that he's hit his mental wall.

Parker led the Blue Devils in scoring at 20.4 per game, which also ranked 28th nationally, before Duke's 79-57 win over Georgia Tech Tuesday in Cameron Indoor Stadium. But Parker’s three lowest scoring games have come in his last three games, as he followed Saturday’s 2-of-10 performance at Notre Dame by going 2-for-9 in the first half against Tech.

“It’s just all in the learning experience,” said Parker, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds against the Yellow Jackets. “It’s my first time playing at such high competition day in and day out, but it’s just something I’m going to learn from and something I’m going to get through.”

Parker even implored to the media after the game, “I’m human, I make mistakes.”

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
Mark Dolejs/USA TODAY SportsJabari Parker has hit a bit of a wall the last three games, the three lowest-scoring of his young Duke career.
People needed to be reminded. We’ve come to expect freshmen such as Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins to be robotic in a sense. We expect that they can be plugged into a lineup and instantly produce big numbers, plugged into a roster and instantly produce big wins.

“LeBron, Kobe and all these guys they lose, they play poorly,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “But in college basketball, those kids, it’s like, ‘No. They’re supposed to be instant.’ It’s not instant. Nothing is instant. We just have got to make sure that we don’t let that pressure get to him and he loses an ability to have fun.”

Parker’s fast start made it seem like he skipped the need for patience. He opened the season scoring 20 or more in seven consecutive games -- the first to accomplish the feat since Kevin Durant’s lone season at Texas in 2006-07. He’s on pace to break Johnny Dawkins’ school record for freshman scoring too. He entered Tuesday ranking fifth in the ACC in rebounds (7.7) and field goal percentage (51.2).

But as Duke and other teams reliant on standout freshmen find out, there will still come a time when they will remind you they are still just a freshman.

“So he’s learning a whole bunch of things and as he’s doing that, we’re still Duke and everyone expects us to be perfect and win everything and look great while we’re doing it,” Krzyzewski said. “It doesn’t happen that way. This is a work in progress.”

Parker said he’s noticed teams defending him more effectively than they did earlier in the season. Scouting reports have thoroughly exposed his go-to moves.

“They’re doing different stuff, but that’s where I’ve got to work on my counters and find other ways to score the ball instead of the first initial part of the attack,” Parker said.

Duke guard Quinn Cook said Parker was going to struggle as freshmen do, but it was important to note that right now it was only because his shot wasn’t falling. His entire game hasn’t gone kaput.

“Everybody gets caught up in the hype of scoring but he played a great game defensively,” Cook said. “People aren’t going to talk about that and reporters aren’t going to talk about that.”

The quickest way to get the side-eye from Krzyzewski is to ask what’s wrong with Parker because of his recent games. He’d probably give the same reaction if the question was posed of Wiggins and Randle.

“They’ve never played at this level, they’ve never played with physicality, they haven’t been as closely scrutinized as everyone is scrutinizing them,” Krzyzewski said. “They’ve been promoted and marketed way beyond what they should be. But that’s the way it is.”

Parker’s play has merited all the attention he’s received. But the spotlight might feel more constricting because of the lack of veterans on the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski said when Kyrie Irving had Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith as established leaders when he was a freshman, so he didn’t have to deal with as much pressure even before his injury.

Krzyzewski said too much was put on the extremely talented players in college basketball to produce at a level and with a consistency that an 18- or 19-year-old kid isn’t ready to produce.

“They have to grow,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to give them a chance to grow.”
We're focusing intensely on Arizona-Duke this morning for a few reasons: Because it might be one of the last times this season either of the top freshmen (Arizona's Aaron Gordon, Duke's Jabari Parker) square off. Because regardless of that distinction, that's a matchup we want to see. Because the contrast each team offers -- whole waves of Wildcats bigs assaulting the Blue Devils' spread small-ball configuration -- is bound to be fascinating.

Or we can keep it this simple: Duke and Arizona are playing each other on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and that's a game you probably should make sure you consume. Pick a bar with TVs. Etc.

We hold these interests to be self-evident, of course. But -- and yes, here comes the annoying "turns out" portion of this post -- all of the obvious reasons can kind of overshadow what makes Sean Miller's team interesting and threatening and insert-your-preferred-adjective here.

Less fuzzily, if you want to understand why Arizona is one of the best five or six teams in the country to date, you have to talk about the Wildcats' backcourt.

You have to talk about Nick Johnson. Remember Johnson as a freshman? He came to school in 2012 with touted point guard Josiah Turner, one of the great recruiting busts of the past five years, and struggled on a not-very-good 22-12 NIT team. He was better in just about every way as a sophomore, but it's this year Johnson truly has made the proverbial leap: an offensive rating of 130.4, an effective field goal percentage of 61.9, 87 percent from the free throw line, 69 percent from two-point range -- you name it, Johnson is doing it, and he's defending better than ever, too. His viability as a perimeter option makes Arizona's offensive attack multifaceted, far less predictable than last season.

Which is (also) where T.J. McConnell comes in. The former Duquesne transfer has, for all intents and purposes, replaced one-year holdover Mark Lyons at the point guard spot this season. The difference has been that McConnell is actually a point guard. Lyons was always an awkward fit in that role; he was always a shoot-first guard and clashed with Xavier coach Chris Mack for exactly those reasons. When he came to Arizona last season, he scored the ball plenty, but his individual tendencies exacerbated the issues a young Arizona team faced. Lyons, in other words, wasn't the right guy to get everyone else involved. And on a team with a lot of talented big guys who wouldn't handle the ball unless it was delivered to them in the right spots, Lyons was an even worse fit.

McConnell is the polar opposite. His 34.1 percent assist rate to date is a nice number to point to, but the passes he is capable of pulling off -- little pocket bounce-passes, parabola-perfect lobs, even something as simple as a post entry -- have turned Arizona's bevy of big men into universally effective weapons.

He is the perfect guard for this system and personnel, and Johnson is the perfect scorer to lead the way. So when you hear the talk about Gordon, don't forget his backcourt. If Arizona is the real deal in 2013-14, it seems the Wildcats will owe it to Johnson and McConnell.

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