The Southern University Jaguars marched into McKale Center undermanned but steady in their attack. As they had for most of the 2013-14 season, they don't rely on one guy.
Arizona hadn't to this point either, but perhaps it needed to rely on freshman Aaron Gordon a little more than usual to make a 69-43 win on Thursday more comfortable.
The freshman started at power forward as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson entered the starting lineup for injured center Kaleb Tarczewski, who missed the win with a sprained ankle. And it's hard to say where the Arizona Wildcats would have been without Gordon. He scored 21 points by hitting 8-of-11 field goals and would've scored more if he'd not gone 4-for-10 from the foul stripe. Nonetheless, the impact of the one guy playing at the same speed the entire squad did against Michigan last week was crucial.
The Wildcats haven't played with anything other than a calm swagger this season, and that's what's allowed them to hang in when adversity hits. At the same time, the way they carry themselves hasn't put any teams away with neck-wringing runs.
In the first half, the Wildcats led by as many as 19 and had a 34-19 advantage at halftime. Never did Southern really threaten, but it wasn't exactly due to Arizona playing well, especially on offense. Often, UA took a shot after a single pass, and aside from T.J. McConnell penetrating and dolling out assists for open dunks early on, it was hardly smooth sailing.
Brandon Ashley, as efficient as he's been this year, went 3-for-9 and got caught chucking out-of-rhythm jumpers. He did so rather than attacking in the paint against the undersized Jaguars, who were for much of the game without forward Calvin Godfrey, their best player who only tallied 16 minutes because of an elbow issue. Ashley still finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds acting as center in Tarczewski's absence.
Nick Johnson added 17 points for Arizona thanks to nine free throw makes, and McConnell finished with six dimes. Hollis-Jefferson had eight points and an equal amount of boards in his first start, and Sean Miller gave Gabe York 22 minutes off a shorter-than-usual bench -- overall, the rotation was short in number and short in height.
Still, the Wildcats did what they needed to. Southern shot just 34 percent overall and went 5-of-21 from three. While Arizona -- Gordon especially -- struggled mightily against a foul-prone squad, the Jaguars did no better. Arizona hit 59.5 percent of its 37 free throws, leaving 15 points off the scoreboard. Southern went 4-of-15, or 26.7 percent.
If and when the foul shot woes catch up to the Wildcats is hard to say.
Oddly, Miller's club couldn't handle playing without Tarczewski. The usual dump-downs into the post weren't there, and thus the outside shooting off the double teams wasn't either. Arizona hit 3-of-11 three-pointers, many of those coming out of the natural flow of the offense. These Wildcats need open looks that come mechanically from sunken defenses, and that wasn't happening on Thursday.
What was happening was Gordon, who used second-chance tip-ins and quick one-dribble moves from 15-feet in to score atop a smaller team. This is still a power forward learning to be a small forward, but no matter how much criticism Gordon takes on -- on this blog more than most other places -- the win against Southern was the best way to appreciate what he is so far.
He's a guy smiling about the crowd's sarcastic cheers when he made his first free throw on the fifth try. He's a guy who knows that good things will come by playing hard.
The other stuff will come. And not many other players in the country have the stuff Gordon has today.