Balanced Arizona contains Parker, beats Duke in NIT Tip-Off finale
NEW YORK -- What we learned from No. 4 Arizona's 72-66 win over No. 6 Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off Final:
1. Arizona may be the most well-balanced title contender. Aaron Gordon is a student of the game, and so when the 6-foot-9 freshman power forward took in the telecast of the Champions Classic on Nov. 12, he wasn't just watching Kentucky-Michigan State and Kansas-Duke, he was scouting them. He was noting how much the of the Blue Devils' offense was run through fellow super-frosh Jabari Parker, who was using a whopping 32.1 percent of his team's offensive possessions. And Gordon was noting how much that was unlike the situation at Arizona, where, he says, "It's equal opportunity for everybody: You've gotta get in where you fit in. And I love it here. It makes it more team-oriented."
The Jabari Show was the best thing on television, pre-Thanksgiving, as Parker scored 21 or more points in each of Duke's first seven games, and looked like the best high-usage freshman to hit college hoops since Michael Beasley at Kansas State in 2007. Arizona does not have that kind of star, yet it's a far more viable title contender than the Blue Devils because it's a complete, balanced team. All of the Wildcats' starters scored in double-figures on Friday, and every player in their seven-man rotation attempted between 5-10 shots.
Gordon, who finished with 10 points on six shots and helped hold Parker to 19 points on 21 shots, is enough of a student to know that even though he's projected as a top-six pick draft pick next season, Arizona does not need him to take over games. "I'm a glue guy that has talent," Gordon said. "So to stick me in the middle of all these pieces, we have no ceiling."
He has ceded the big-shot role to junior guard Nick Johnson, and fellow big men Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski took their own turns scoring around the rim. Gordon had more assists (four) than either of Duke's point guards (Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton each had three) and Arizona's offense consistently flowed better when its prize frosh was on the floor.
2. T.J. McConnell is the ideal point guard for a team with so much versatile talent. Speaking of teams centered around one high-usage player: Last year's Arizona offense was in the hands of senior transfer Mark Lyons, a non-distributing point guard who used 26.5 percent of the Wildcats' possessions; their next-highest user was Solomon Hill, at 21.4 percent. It wasn't a terrible arrangement -- they ranked 10th in offensive efficiency -- but this year's roster was going to be better-served by a pass-first leader.
Enter McConnell, who left Duquesne after a strong sophomore season in 2011-12 and last year was dominating out of sight -- as the leader of Arizona's scout team. "We actually thought that [McConnell] and our four walk-ons could beat a D-I team," Johnson said, "just because he made everybody on that team better."
On Friday, a starting lineup of McConnell, Johnson and three McDonald's All-Americans beat the sixth-ranked D-I team, in large part because McConnell dished out eight assists and committed just two turnovers. The three he created to cap a key 9-0 run late in the second half was symbolic of much of McConnell's night -- he led the break, but instead of attacking the rim, collapsed Duke's defense from the right side and then pitched the ball back to Johnson for a perfectly squared-up, catch-and-shoot opportunity. McConnell entered the game using a team-low 16.2 percent of possessions, and although he could easily be a 20-point scorer in the Atlantic-10, he transferred to find a way to chase a title. "He really does have [scoring ability] in his game," Johnson said of his new point guard, "but he sacrifices that for our team."
3. The Wildcats found a way to make Parker an inefficient star. During their scouting process for Friday's final, Arizona's coaches were wowed by Parker. "I had never seen a freshman score like him," said assistant Joe Pasternack, "and I think he can be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft." They figured they could not shut him down entirely, but they could win by bothering him with enough length to make him score inefficiently. They varied up their defensive looks, alternating between 6-foot-8 Brandon Ashley, 6-foot-9 Gordon and 6-foot-7 Rondae Hollis-Jefferson as his primary defender. They tried to front and deny Parker in the post, and when he did get touches, the goal, according to Pasternack, "was to crowd him and build walls around him."
When Parker had the ball on the perimeter, Arizona did even more gap-shrinking with its help defenders than normal -- it's a staple of their Pack-Line defense-- in hopes of taking away driving lanes. Parker came into Friday's game scoring a remarkable 1.241 points per possession while shouldering that huge offensive load; Oregon State's Roberto Nelson was the only major-conference player who had a better efficiency rating (1.262 PPP) while using at least 30 percent of his team's possessions. That's a nerdy way of saying that Parker had been ridiculously good, and an effective way of putting his performance against Arizona into the proper context. He had to use 21 shots and three two-shot trips to the free-throw line, while committing five turnovers,in order to get his 19 points. Which means that Parker was significantly less efficient (an estimated 0.697 PPP) against Arizona as he was against everyone else. Scoring on Duke this season hasn't been all that difficult, but making the best freshman in the land work almost twice as hard for his points? That's the sign that you might have a championship-caliber defense.