If you weren't already taking Arizona seriously as a contender to win it all this season, Friday night's 72-66 win over Duke in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off should have officially put the Wildcats on your radar.
As tends to be the case when Arizona is on the court, it was a total team effort from arguably the best seven-man rotation in the country.
After the game, Nick Johnson told Jim O'Connell of the Associated Press, "We're an all-around team. Really you could see it in the box score. It was pretty even all the way around."
All five starters finished with at least 10 points. Led by T.J. McConnell's eight dimes, the Wildcats recorded an assist on 18 of their 23 made field goals. They outrebounded Duke by a 36-29 margin while tallying two more steals and six more blocks than the Blue Devils. In every facet of the game, they were statistically and visibly better than a team widely regarded as a favorite to win the ACC and contend for a national championship.
The game was marketed as a battle between super freshmen Aaron Gordon and Jabari Parker, but that was never going to be the case.
They did go head-to-head for much of the game. Gordon arguably won the individual battle on the defensive end by holding Parker to just seven buckets on 21 attempts. However, while Duke absolutely needs 20-plus points per game from Parker to win, Gordon is just one of the many cogs in Arizona's finely tuned machine.
Echoing what many have been saying throughout the first month of the season, Dick Vitale pointed out on multiple occasions that the stats don't tell the whole story on Gordon when comparing him to the likes of Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle. The other freshmen are scoring considerably more than Gordon, but that shouldn't diminish his perceived value to Arizona—nor Arizona's perceived chance at a title.
Truth be told, Gordon was practically invisible for large portions of the game—save for that alley-oop dunk over the top of Duke's zone with five minutes left in the game.
Arizona's frontcourt survived just fine without him stuffing the stat sheets.
Brandon Ashley scored 13 points and was well on his way to a breakout party before foul trouble got the best of him. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona's 7-footer, put up 10 points and nine rebounds of his own. And Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had his fingerprints all over the box score with seven points, six rebounds, two blocks, two assists and a steal.
Of course, this is just business as usual for the Wildcats, as all four of those big men entered the night averaging between 9.0 and 12.5 points per game while combining for 26.7 rebounds per game. In their opener of the NIT Season Tip-Off against Fairleigh Dickinson back on November 18, the quartet combined for 44 points and 33 rebounds without a single member playing more than 25 minutes in the 100-50 victory.
The backcourt is incredibly good, too, and perhaps this win over Duke will be the catalyst that gets people talking about it.
During the way-too-long pregame show caused by the triple-overtime game between Alabama and Drexel, Seth Greenberg and Dan Dakich listed what they considered to be the top backcourts in the country. In addition to Michigan State's Keith Appling and Gary Harris, they highlighted Connecticut's duo of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, Louisville's pairing of Chris Jones and Russ Smith and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Markel Brown.
If they could do it all over again, though, there's a good chance they would include Arizona's T.J. McConnell and Nick Johnson. Through seven games, Johnson is leading the team with 17.0 points per game. McConnell is contributing 6.7 points and 6.4 assists per contest.
The Wildcats also have Gabe York coming off the bench as their top three-point shooter. Despite Friday's 1-for-4 effort from beyond the arc, York has made 44.8 percent of his three-point attempts to this point in the season.
If there's a weakness on this team, it isn't readily apparent. Prior to the Duke game, one might have thought that free-throw shooting would be its Achilles heel, as the Wildcats entered the game shooting 66.5 percent from the charity stripe. After making 21 out of 26 on Friday night, however, that no longer appears to be a problem.
As Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports wrote after Friday night's game, "There will continue to be questions about Arizona—but with the Wildcats' versatility and defense, they might have answers for most of them."
Considering the emphasis on hand-checking this season and the rampant foul trouble that it causes, it's going to take at least seven reliable players on a nightly basis to make a deep run in this year's NCAA tournament. Kansas and Kentucky could eventually get there, but there isn't a better seven-man rotation right now than the one that Sean Miller has in Arizona.
Because of that fact, the Wildcats aren't simply a candidate to cut down the nets in Arlington this April. They're arguably closing out the month of November as the favorite to do so.
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