NMSU vs. Arizona score: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, UA frontcourt shines

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson catapulting his name into the conversation of the nation's top freshman with one dunk, but it's nothing that's easy to see that makes him great.

For the Arizona Wildcats, a 74-48 win against New Mexico State on Wednesday night was more of the same. Sean Miller's team had strong defense, a dominating frontcourt effort and perhaps a little too much stiffness thanks to the pressure of the No. 1 ranking.

Brandon Ashley (15 points) and Kaleb Tarczewski (14 points) continued their growth as sophomores, while Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell did what they needed.

But this game was about the Arizona small forwards, for better and for worse.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was the blinding bright spot. The sixth man had thus far been putting in numbers that mirrored those of Andre Iguodala in his own days as a freshman playing behind Luke Walton. Grantland's Jonathan Abrams fittingly published a feature on Iguodala on Wednesday, comparing the former Wildcat swingman to Scottie Pippen. The point -- he's under-appreciated for reasons you can't see.

"...you could tell people were forcing themselves to compliment Gordon too much."


And thus far, Hollis-Jefferson hasn't been appreciated enough. Like Iguodala, his impact doesn't often show up in the box score, and it often hasn't been on the highlight reel either. But on Wednesday, Miller's small forward did something that put Hollis-Jefferson as not one of the best freshmen in the nation, but arguably the best one on Arizona's team.

With the defense overplaying his strong left hand, Hollis-Jefferson drove right and rose for a jam while, seemingly, he was still elevating.
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The freshman finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks. His most impressive play, aside from the violent dunk, was when he chased down a rebound closer to several New Mexico State players just for the sake of -- the ball wasn't cleanly rebounded, and Hollis-Jefferson took the opportunity to knock the ball off an opponent. Arizona ball.

But that dunk. It allowed everyone to finally appreciate Hollis-Jefferson.

That appreciation hasn't been helped by Aaron Gordon playing in front of Hollis-Jefferson. In fact, the hype around Gordon has perhaps caused an issue with Gordon himself. Without the identity as a defensive-minded swingman that Hollis-Jefferson has, Gordon has struggled with consistency.

The effort has always been there, but the execution and aggressiveness certainty hasn't. It can't be stated enough; when the hype machine causes national columnists to write about Gordon's defense on Jabari Parker when he spent limited time defending the Duke forward a few weeks back, you could tell people were forcing themselves to compliment Gordon too much.

On Wednesday during one trip to the foul stripe, Gordon bricked two shots wide left. Injury or a lack of confidence, or the combination of the two, might be getting the best of him, and he finished 1-for-6 from the line.

That said, Gordon still scored 11 points and grabbed four rebounds.

It's unfair, because Aaron Gordon isn't supposed to be more than what he is on this team. We shouldn't say he's been disappointing, but we shouldn't expect him to force the issue. When he's ready, he'll do more and in the meantime, the Wildcats will be fine with what he's been providing.

Zeus gets aggressive

Maybe it helped that the Arizona big men were, for once, guarding bigger players than themselves. There was less reaching and more comfort in getting physical with 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar and 268-pounder Tshilidzi Nephawe.


Tarczewski showed more aggressiveness in attacking the rim, his first dunk being flushed around NMSU arms quickly and with aggression. Zeus didn't miss a shot Wednesday, hitting all five of his attempts and netting all four free throws.

Ashley led the Wildcats by hitting 5-of-7 shots and all three three-pointers as he stretched the oversized Aggies frontcourt to the perimeter.

The good news: Arizona didn't struggle with turnovers as it had, and despite what felt like a slow start, the Wildcats led 32-24 at the half but seemingly were in control throughout. One of the few New Mexico State players who found success was Daniel Mullings, the top-scorer coming into Wednesday's game. Mullings went 6-of-14 and scored 18 points -- he was the only NMSU player in double-figures -- but he also had six turnovers.

New Mexico State shot just 33 percent.

Guards stand aside

Nick Johnson and T.J. McConnell didn't take over as they had in past games, but they did give the Wildcats an early second-half burst to help UA to a double-figure lead that would turn into the rout. The backcourt duo combined to go 8-for-14 for 17 points, 10 assists and three steals.

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