clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

NCAA Tournament 2014: Arizona's Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson peaking at right time

If the Arizona basketball team wants to be a serious threat, it will need to look toward its dynamic freshman forwards.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

It has always been a stagnant offense making people hesitant to write in the Arizona Wildcats as a title game favorite.

In the halfcourt, Arizona won't have more than three shooters on the court at any time. Not only does that fail to stretch the floor, but it's also a numbers game. One cold shooter is much worse with just two left on the roster, so on and so forth.

But after an 84-61 whipping of the Gonzaga Bulldogs on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16, Sean Miller's team had evidence it may not need great shooting to find reliable offense.

Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona's freshmen forwards, have begun helping Naismith Award finalist Nick Johnson do what he's done all year: turn defense into offense with turnovers and defensive rebounds leading to opportunities in transition.

While the early tournament exits of freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid lead the storylines about the NBA Draft, Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson have the talent to play at the next level, too. The ability is there for Arizona to force teams into mistakes at one end and make them pay at the other thanks to this pair of terrific young athletes with high motors.

Arizona's did so at an all-time high against the Zags on Sunday, and it'll be necessary for the Wildcats to keep it up if they want a trip to the Final Four.

Arizona forced 21 turnovers and scored 31 points off those mistakes, and it recorded a total of 24 assists on 32 made field goals.

Johnson, a freak athlete of a 6'2 combo guard, and the two freshman forwards are elite athletes that can play a disruptive brand of defense, but against the Bulldogs they showed how dangerous they can be in transition. Gordon went 8-for-10 from the floor but more importantly had four steals and six assists. Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats' sixth man, likewise scored 18. He added four blocks, a steal and five assists.

On top of Johnson's four blocks and three steals, it was a nightmare for Gonzaga.

Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson seem to have gained more trust from Miller to push the ball off rebounds or forced turnovers, and the results when looped in with Johnson's abilities have looked something like this.

As the season has progressed, the Wildcats have proven they're one of the best defensive teams in the nation. And they defend without fouling too much, minimizing the issues caused by a lack of depth.

Miller's squad goes into the Sweet 16 still atop's adjusted defensive ratings and near the top of most defensive categories, be it opponent points per 100 possessions (89.5), opponent field goal shooting (38 percent) or otherwise.

Early offense, preferably off turnovers, makes up for Arizona's poor spacing and average three-point shooting.

The numbers recorded against Gonzaga are hard to expect against a San Diego State in the Sweet 16, or a Wisconsin or Baylor in the Elite Eight.

After all, Arizona has only been average at pushing the pace this year, scoring in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock on just 26.5 percent of their possessions, according to The Wildcats are also not elite at turning teams over. They were completely willing to force bad shots, and are third-best in the nation for opponent assists per game (9.2), a sign that their back-line defense, versatility and length did the job.

But that's not to say the Wildcats, led by Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson, aren't getting better at forcing turnovers. There's certainly no reason to believe the two McDonald's All-Americans from a year ago can't push the pace more, even off defensive rebounds.

The Gonzaga game proved the Wildcats' freshman are still setting roots in their team's foundation.

If a pair of 6'8 freshman forwards can consistently lead breaks like this, then the Wildcats can punch their tickets to Dallas.