On a day where freshmen phenoms Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid joined Jabari Parker in a waiting game to decide their individual futures, Arizona Wildcats freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson propelled their team to a dominating, 84-61 win against the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Gordon put in 18 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals, Hollis-Jefferson added 18, five boards, five assists and four blocks, and both contributed to a rabid defensive effort that forced 21 Gonzaga turnovers. The Wildcats scored 31 points off those turnovers -- the Bulldogs scored just two off Arizona's six miscues.
Sean Miller's team flipped the switch from the second round game against Weber State.
The offense was sluggish and the Wildcats lacked aggression on Friday, but on Sunday Arizona wasted little time getting into offensive sets of pushing the pace. Miller expressed concern over his team's attitude after the Weber State game, but the message about playing with more spirit looked to be received, and well. Above all, Arizona played with unity on both ends, its 24 assists and 32 made field goals exemplifying a refreshed attitude.
Gonzaga looked even more bothered by ball pressure than Weber State did a game ago, though credit the Wildcats for making that happen.
Gabe York was especially aggressive to begin the game, hounding the Bulldogs and making all the good (two steals, 11 points) worth the bad (getting blown by occasionally).
The rest of the team followed suit.
But once Gordon returned from the bench, he wasted no time getting involved in one of his best overall efforts of the year. Without thinking, he launched a three with seven minutes to play, giving UA a 36-20 lead. Gordon then scored on a dunk and made a free throw to give Arizona a 21-point lead with five minutes remaining before the halftime break.
At halftime, Arizona held a 47-34 lead behind 12 points each from Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon. Arizona recorded just a single turnover in the first half meanwhile racking up 17 made field goals off 13 assists. The story was quite the opposite for Gonzaga, which shot itself back into the game to hang in despite 12 turnovers in the first 20 minutes of play.
The Wildcats put pressure on the Zags, pushing the pace early off turnovers and taking 300-pound Bulldog center Przemek Karnowski out of the game both schematically and literally -- foul trouble and the rotation limited the big man.
Karnowski scored 14 and added 10 rebounds, but otherwise, the Wildcats were dominant defensively, holding Gonzaga to 41 percent shooting. Sam Dower, the team's leading scorer, went 3-for-12 and scored just seven. Guard Kevin Pangos didn't record an assist and only could launch nine three-pointers, he and David Stockton struggling with the physicality of the UA backcourt.
Gary Bell Jr., the Zags' other starting guard, went scoreless.
Arizona shot 49 percent for the game and the transition offense that'd been lacking was deadly. It all started with Nick Johnson doing his usual defensive work -- he added 17 points, five assists, five steals and three blocks -- and the freshman forwards using their length and then making plays in the fullcourt.
The defensive intensity became the clear identity of the Wildcats in the nonconference schedule and beyond. But this is the deeper, more refined and more mature identity that has enough to win a title.
Next up: Anaheim.