Arizona Basketball: Are Aaron Gordon and Wildcats Ready for National Spotlight?

Brian PedersenFeatured ColumnistNovember 26, 2013

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 14:  Josh Davis #22 of the San Diego State Aztecs fights for position during a freethrow attempt in the second half of the game against Gabe York #1 and Aaron Gordon #11 of the Arizona Wildcats at Viejas Arena on November 14, 2013 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Kent C. Horner/Getty Images)
Kent Horner/Getty Images

There are still more than 40 college basketball teams in Division I that have yet to lose during the 2013-2014 season, so Arizona's 5-0 start must be taken with that knowledge in mind.

The Wildcats have looked good, if not great, during most of their opening games, which have included three home blowouts, a closer-than-expected home opener and a solid victory in a true road game on a schedule that USA Today computer ratings expert Jeff Sagarin considers the 309th-toughest out of 351 schools.

All that's about to change, though, with Arizona's trip to New York City this week.

First up for the Wildcats is Drexel (3-1) on Wednesday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off Semifinals at Madison Square Garden, followed by a Friday game against either Alabama (3-1) or No. 6 Duke (5-1).

The tournament was set up to have Arizona and Duke face each other in the title game, a high-profile, early-season contest for both clubs to see where they stand. But while Duke has already gotten one of those testslosing to Kansas in Chicago two weeks agoArizona hasn't had that opportunity to shine on a national stage.

This begs the question: Is Arizona ready?

The Wildcats have been a trendy preseason pick to make the Final Four, their first since losing to Duke in the 2001 NCAA title game. But that's based on hype and guesswork, with several teams getting overrated to begin a season only to be duds by the end.

Last year alone, schools such as Missouri, North Carolina and North Carolina State were in the Top 15 in the 2012-13 Associated Press preseason poll, but none of the lot ended up higher than a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.

SAN DIEGO, CA - NOVEMBER 14:  Aaron Gordon #11 of theArizona Wildcats dunks the ball on an inbounds pass in the second half of the game and is fouled by Dakarai Allen #4 of the San Diego State Aztecs at Viejas Arena on November 14, 2013 in San Diego, Cali
Kent Horner/Getty Images

However, all signs point to Arizona not being one of those overrated flameouts.

Though there haven't been many chances to prove that theory so far, the way the Wildcats played in their trip to San Diego State on Nov. 14 is a good example of how they'll fare in a pressure situation like what could come in NYC. The 69-60 win over the Aztecs was a huge statement win for the team and serves as strong evidence that it can compete on the national stage.

Faced with foul trouble almost from the start, and with a raucous crowd hovering over it, Arizona calmly and coolly built an early lead and held it all game.

The presence of several returning players from last year's Sweet 16 team, including guard Nick Johnson and veteran-like sophomores Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, provides a strong foundation.

Throw in a superstar freshman in Aaron Gordon, who's pretty much had to go through puberty with scouts and recruiters watching his every move, and the expectation is he'll be able to handle any pressure that comes his way.

But Arizona's system isn't set up to put all of that weight on his shoulders like it is for some freshman stars at other schools.

While Arizona doesn't get invited to nearly as many of these neutral-site affairs as Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State and North Carolina tend to be, that doesn't mean the Wildcats couldn't handle the spotlight just as wellif not better.

That should be seen on Wednesday and Friday in New York City.