Heralded freshman Aaron Gordon creating major expectations for 6th-ranked Arizona

Aaron Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward, is expected to help take preseason No. 6 Arizona to a higher level.
Arizona Athletics
azcentral sports Thu Nov 7, 2013 9:05 PM

One by one, coaches at last month’s Pac-12 media day were asked about the conference’s top newcomers. One by one, the same person kept coming up.

Oregon State’s Craig Robinson: “Obviously, Aaron Gordon at Arizona is going to have a big impact.”

California’s Mike Montgomery: “Aaron Gordon, he’s just a monster.”

Washington’s Lorenzo Romar: “Aaron, he’s a special player. He’s one of the rare, rare young kids that comes into college that is extremely talented, yet has a motor and he has his goals. He wants to be the best, he wants to play at the highest level. But at the same time he’s a very unselfish basketball player. I just don’t know if that combination is out there much these days.”

Freshmen this season might take over college basketball. Kansas wing Andrew Wiggins leads the charge. He is a candidate for national Player of the Year, a talent expected to blossom into the top overall pick in June’s NBA draft. Duke forward Jabari Parker and Kentucky forward Julius Randle are on similar levels, expected this season to compete for All-America honors.

Then there’s Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward expected to help take preseason No. 6 Arizona to a higher level.

The Wildcats have not visited the Final Four since 2001. This season, with transfer T.J. McConnell running the offense and a solid front line, they might have the pieces to get there. If so, Gordon will be a significant factor.

“Gordon’s not as skilled as (the other top freshmen), but he’s rangy,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said on a teleconference. “He’s going to add a different dimension to that group.”

Coaches often downplay a freshman’s potential, simply to keep expectations at a realistic level. In Gordon’s case, however, Arizona coach Sean Miller doesn’t bother.

In regards to Gordon’s work ethic, Miller says he’s never seen anyone quite like the springy freshman, and he can’t name a close second. Departed senior Solomon Hill was as focused and competitive as anyone Miller had seen, but Gordon might surpass him, Miller said, even at a younger age.

“It’s not just his motor (on the court),” the fifth-year Arizona coach said. “It’s his approach to every single thing that he does basketball-wise. He’s full throttle from the opening drill to the last, every single day. That for him is almost like another skill set because it’s so contagious. If you’re competing against him, and I really believe this, because of his attitude, you have to be ready to go.”

Gordon — the brother of former UCLA and New Mexico forward Drew Gordon — grew up in San Jose. He flashed his potential at Archbishop Mitty High, where he became just the fourth two-time California Mr. Basketball selection since 1979.

A five-star prospect, Gordon chose Arizona over Washington, Kentucky and Oregon. Over the summer he led the United States to a gold medal, earning MVP honors, at the FIBA U-19 Word Championship in Prague, Czech Republic. And since stepping on campus in Tucson, he’s impressed nearly everyone with his work ethic and versatility.

“Aaron’s going to give us a presence on the wing who can guard (four positions),” junior guard Nick Johnson said. “He’s going to be a monster on the offensive and defensive glass. He can run the court. Everybody knows about his highlights, but his biggest thing will be on defense.”

Gordon will team up with 6-8 sophomore Brandon Ashley and 7-foot sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski to give Arizona what should be the Pac-12’s top front line. Miller especially likes the defensive possibilities.

Both Gordon and Ashley can defend in the post or on the perimeter, he said, giving him flexibility. To start, with the losses of Hill and guard Mark Lyons — last season’s top scorers — the Wildcats may have to rely on defense, and they’re more than capable.

Gordon, who will start the season with a minor groin strain, wants to contribute in any way possible.

“He may start off slowly and then all of a sudden build,” Miller said. “Regardless, his approach is so unique and his talent level is at such a place that it’s just a matter of time for him. He doesn’t wow you with his shooting, but the ability to pass and handle it for his size and rebound and get fouled and defend the other team at multiple (positions) … he’s a unique guy.”



Defense. This should be Sean Miller’s best defensive team in Tucson. Sophomore Brandon Ashley and freshman Aaron Gordon are frontcourt players who can defend on the perimeter. Transfer guard T.J. McConnell was an All-Atlantic10 defender at Duquesne, ranking third nationally in steals per game. Last but not least, junior guard Nick Johnson has the tools to be elite.

McConnell. Previous point guards MoMo Jones and Mark Lyons brought toughness and scoring to the Wildcats, but McConnell is the type of point guard Miller covets. The kind that makes everyone better.

Frontcourt depth. Several Pac-12 teams have depth in the backcourt, but none can match Arizona’s depth inside. Ashley, Gordon and sophomore 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski are pegged to start with 6-10 forwards Zach Peters and Matt Korcheck helping off the bench.


Finding a go-to player. Last season Lyons and Solomon Hill never backed down from the big moment. This season who hits the clutch shot or gets to the foul line when the Wildcats need to score? Is Johnson ready to fill such a big role?

Perimeter scoring. Tarczewski is the best in the Pac-12 at dishing out of the post, but it’ll do little good if Arizona can’t knock down the open jumper. Departed players hit 74 percent of last season’s 269 3-pointers, leaving the Wildcats with a significant void from long range.

Beating UCLA. Conference media picked Arizona to win the Pac-12 regular-season crown. They picked UCLA to finish second. Potential problem: Arizona has lost five of its past seven matchups with the Bruins, including all three meetings last season.


Duke, Nov. 29: Actually, this is just on our wish list, but it has a great chance to happen in the championship of the NIT Preseason-Tip-off in New York. If it does, it could be one of the better matchups of the non-conference season.

At Michigan, Dec. 14: Two things get tested here: 1) The Wildcats’ mental toughness; playing at a Big Ten venue won’t be easy. 2) Their perimeter defense. Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Zak Irvin can fill it up from deep.

At UCLA, Jan. 9: A Miller-Steve Alford rivalry just sounds right, doesn’t it? Both trying to win championships at proud programs. Both successful guards back in the day. (And great free-throw shooters, too.) Both sons of high school coaches. This could be good for the Pac-12.


It’s November. No one knows. But Arizona has the ingredients — defensive versatility, interior size and a solid point guard in McConnell — to make a March run. Much depends on Johnson and how he adjusts to a bigger offensive role.

—Doug Haller

UA men’s roster

No., Name, Pos., Ht., Yr.

1, Gabe York, G, 6-3, So.

4, T.J. McConnell, G, 6-1, Jr.

11, Aaron Gordon, F, 6-9, Fr.

13, Nick Johnson, G, 6-3, Jr.

20, Jordin Mayes, G, 6-3, Sr.

21, Brandon Ashley, F, 6-8, So.

23, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, F, 6-7, Fr.

24, Elliott Pitts, G, 6-5, Fr.

31, Matt Korcheck, F, 6-10, Jr.

33, Zach Peters, F, 6-10, RS-Fr.

35, Kaleb Tarczewski, C, 7-0, So.

44, Trey Mason, G, 6-2, Fr.

50, Jacob Hazzard, G, 6-0, So.

52, Chris Johnson, F, 6-6, Jr.

54, Eric Conklin, F, 6-6, Fr.

55, Drew Mellon, F, 6-6, Jr.

UA men’s schedule

Today — vs. Cal Poly, 8 p.m.

Monday — vs. Long Beach State, 8 p.m.

Nov. 14 — at San Diego State, 8:05 p.m.

NIT Season Tip-Off:

Nov. 18 — vs. Fairleigh Dickinson, 9 p.m.

Nov. 19 — vs. Rhode Island or Metro State, 9 p.m.

Nov. 27 — vs. opponent TBD in New York, TBD

Nov. 29 — vs. opponent TBD in New York, TBD

Dec. 3 — vs. Texas Tech, 7 p.m.

Dec. 7 — vs. UNLV, 3:15 p.m.

Dec. 11 — vs. New Mexico State, 7 p.m.

Dec. 14 — at Michigan, 10 a.m.

Dec. 19 — vs. Southern University, 7 p.m.

Dec. 23 — vs. Northern Arizona, 8 p.m.

Jan. 2 — vs. Washington State, 8 p.m.

Jan. 4 — vs. Washington, noon

Jan. 9 — at UCLA, 7 p.m.

Jan. 12 — at USC, 7 p.m.

Jan. 16 — vs. Arizona State, 7 p.m.

Jan. 23 — vs. Colorado, 7 p.m.

Jan. 26 — vs. Utah, 6 p.m.

Jan. 29 — at Stanford, 7 p.m.

Feb. 1 — at California, 8:30 p.m.

Feb. 6 — vs. Oregon, 7 p.m.

Feb. 9 — vs. Oregon State, 5 p.m.

Feb. 14 — at Arizona State, 7 p.m.

Feb. 19 — at Utah, 8 p.m.

Feb. 22 — at Colorado, TBD

Feb. 26 — vs. California, 7 p.m.

March 2 — vs. Stanford, 6 p.m.

March 5 — at Oregon State, 9 p.m.

March 8 — at Oregon, 2 p.m.

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