ANAHEIM, Calif. — Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon arrived in Tucson last summer boasting the same credentials as the other high-profile members of the Class of 2013.
Consensus top-five recruit.
Future NBA lottery pick.
By December, however, something had changed. College basketball fans and analysts fawned ad nauseam over first-year players such as Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis—all of whom were enjoying success.
But outside of Tucson, people rarely mentioned Gordon.
Somehow the leading rebounder on the No. 1-ranked team in America had become “the other guy,” the forgotten freshman.
“Those guys are all good people,” Gordon said Friday. “But at the end of the day, there’s a sense of competition (between us), and there always will be. I don’t hide from it. I want to be the best.”
Gordon may not be a top-five pick in this summer’s NBA draft, but he’s definitely earned bragging rights on most of his 2013 classmates.
While players such as Wiggins, Parker and Ennis have seen their seasons—and likely their one-year college careers—come to an end, Gordon is one step away from leading Arizona to its first Final Four since 2001.
The Wildcats, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, take on No. 2 seed Wisconsin on Saturday in the Elite Eight. Kentucky—which starts five freshmen—is the only other team besides Arizona to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend largely because of a member of the Class of 2013.
“It’s all about confidence,” said Gordon, who averages 12.5 points and 7.7 rebounds. “The more confidence I get, the more you’re going to see me shine. I believe in myself fully. I love winning. I hate losing. To be in this position...it was expected.”
Gordon is only 18, but he carries himself like a 30-year-old man. Not just with his actions, but with his words.
There are plenty of things about the NCAA tournament that could be distracting to a freshman, especially after reaching the Elite Eight. Throngs of reporters, NBA draft talk, excessive praise (or criticism) on social media, looking too far ahead.
Gordon, though, seemed completely dialed in while answering reporters’ questions Friday. He even hesitated to answer a question about his sister, a soon-to-be Harvard graduate, because he was “focused on the task at hand.”
“He’s so intelligent, so mature for his age,” Arizona guard Gabe York said. “His poise as a freshman doesn’t go unnoticed. Other people see how composed he is under pressure, and it rubs off on people.”
The Wildcats knew from the start that Gordon would fit in well in Tucson. Junior guard Nick Johnson said he and his teammates were shocked at how humble Gordon was.
“(He) just kind of threw the (recruiting) ranking out the door and said, ‘I have to work for my minutes. I have to work for my spot,’" Johnson said. “He came in ready to work, ready to listen to us.”
Arizona coach Sean Miller credits Gordon’s parents, Ed Gordon and Shelly Davis, for the maturity he’s shown thus far. Gordon’s brother, Drew, starred at New Mexico after transferring from UCLA. His sister, Elise, played for Harvard. Gordon’s father had a brief stint in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
“Sometimes, with a player of this caliber, the family’s expectations are almost different than the coach’s expectations,” Miller said. “But his parents get it. They know how things work. There is no outside negativity. Aaron has no pressure coming from them. It’s all support.”
Gordon’s levelheadedness is one of the main reasons he’s projected as the No. 8 pick in this summer’s NBA draft by DraftExpress.com. Teams are confident that Gordon is mature enough and responsible enough to adapt to the NBA lifestyle without problems.
Of course, they’re also fond of what he’ll bring to the court.
Gordon may be the most athletic player in the country for his size. He can defend all five positions, and he can play most of them, too. Gordon was a small forward for Arizona’s first 21 games before switching to power forward after starter Brandon Ashley went down with a knee injury.
Gordon’s one glaring weakness is at the foul stripe, where he’s making just 42.1 percent of his free throws.
Asked Friday to name his favorite NBA player, Gordon threw out the name “Scottie Griffin.”
“The defensive intensity of Scottie Pippen and the athleticism of Blake Griffin,” he explained.
Gordon definitely channeled his inner-Griffin in Thursday’s Sweet 16 victory over San Diego State, when he caught a lob pass from York with one hand above the rim and slammed it home. York said he threw the pass off-target intentionally so the the dunk would look more spectacular.
“I did it on purpose so he could go get it and freak it real quick,” York said. “A dunk like that can change the game because the crowd goes so wild. That’s definitely what happened tonight.”
The Wildcats are hoping for more of the same against Wisconsin.
The Badgers dismantled a red-hot Baylor squad 69-52 in the Sweet 16 and tout 29 wins overall. Gordon, though, is confident he and his teammates will play well enough to help Arizona advance to get within two wins of the program's first NCAA title since 1997.
If that happens, Gordon will get the time in the spotlight he deserves. One reason he may not have received more attention thus far is because of Arizona’s location. The Wildcats play most of their games while the rest of the country is asleep.
That wouldn’t be the case during the Final Four, not that it matters to Gordon.
“He doesn’t care about how bright the lights are or how big the stage is,” York said. “He just plays basketball.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.