Arizona’s formula in beating Duke is what it wants to use all season.
Balanced scoring, multiple shut-down defenders, unselfish and versatile players.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats placed all five starters in double figures and got significant contributions Friday night from everyone in the rotation in what has become a seven-man team. Nobody scored more than 15 points. Nobody grabbed more than nine rebounds.
Just balance in a 72-66 victory over sixth-ranked Duke to win the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament in Madison Square Garden.
“We’re an all-around team,” guard Nick Johnson said in the postgame press conference. “Really you could see it in the box score. It was pretty even all the way around.”
Let’s take a look at the seven-man rotation, starting with Johnson, who was selected the MVP of the tournament:
G Nick Johnson: 15 points, four rebounds, three assists, two blocks, two steals
His 3-pointers book-ended a 15-3 Arizona run midway through the second half that turned a three-point deficit into a 57-48 lead that gave the Wildcats control.
He’s not a break-you-down one-on-one player, but if UA has such a thing as a go-to guy, Johnson is it.
“Nick’s become that for us,” coach Sean Miller said. “He’s taken big shots. He’s made them.
“True go-to guys are the ones that dig their team out of a gutter or are able to put three or four bad plays
behind them and make the next big play. It’s great to see Nick developing into that. …
“I don’t know if there are more complete guards in the country than Nick, when you just look at what he means to our team and the value, the way he plays both ends of the floor.”
F Aaron Gordon: 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals, two blocks
It’s rare to see such a touted freshman play within the game, not jack up stupid shots and make crazy passes. He didn’t get into the hype of playing against Duke freshman Jabari Parker, taking only six shots while Parker needed 21 shots to score his 19 points.
Parker had five turnovers; Gordon one.
Gordon had four more rebounds and three more assists.
He had foul trouble in the first half, finishing with two points and three rebounds, but played all but 18 seconds of the second half.
“Aaron is not going to go score 30. He’s not a volume shooter. He’s a basketball player,” Miller said. “He made a couple of the best passes on offense for us.”
Gordon made his sole 3-point attempt, which puts up at 5 of 9 from behind the arc for the season. He’s improved from long distance and is smart enough to take good shots.
“He’s a guy you love to have him on your team because he’s a great teammate and it seems like everything flows better when he’s out there, even though he’s not a point guard,” Miller said.
F Brandon Ashley: 13 points, two rebounds
Foul trouble has been a persistent problem for Ashley this season, and he fouled out with 1:46 left after a quiet second half. His contribution came in the first half — 11 points on 5 of 7 shooting.
“Ashley was kind of down in the second half because he fouled out,” assistant coach Joe Pasternack said on the postgame show on 1290-AM (KCUB).
“But we told him, we would have had no chance to have won this game if he didn’t have the first half he did. He had all points and really, really did a great job on Parker in the first half.”
C Kaleb Tarczewski: 10 points, nine rebounds
He came one rebound shy of his second career double-double; the first came two nights earlier vs. Drexel. His size helped create mismatches against Duke, especially when he finished aggressively around the basket, which wasn’t all the time.
He went 6 for 6 from the free throw line, pushing his season percentage to 80.8 percent (21 of 26). That’s a big improvement from last season’s 63.3 mark from the line.
PG T.J. McConnell: 10 points, eight assists, six rebounds
McConnell had only two turnovers, including one on an alley-oop pass to Johnson that was a touch hard and high. But that was a rare mistake in a game in which he played 39 minutes in the biggest game, on the biggest stage, of his career.
Asked what kind of difference the Duquesne transfer makes on Arizona, Johnson said, “Huge. Huge.”
These are the kind of minutes — in quantity and quality — Miller is going to want from McConnell in big-time games. McConnell, according to STATS LLC, via ESPN, reported that McConnell finished the game having run 2.7 miles, more than a half-mile more than any of his teammates.
G Gabe York: 7 points
York has been the surprise of the season, moving into the rotation after a freshman season in which he played only 87 minutes. York has already played 139 minutes through seven games.
He’s the volume 3-point shooter the Cats need, and although he was only 1 of 4 from beyond the arc vs. Duke, he played key minutes late in the first half when three teammates had foul trouble.
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson: 7 points, six rebounds, two assists, two blocks
Hollis-Jefferson ended up guarding Parker and dangerous Rodney Hood (21 points) in the second half. His length and versatility allows him to guard bigger and smaller players.
“Defensively, he was excellent,” Pasternack said. “He guarded Parker, he guarded Hood, he guarded everyone on the court. I thought he was a big key for us.”
Jefferson, like Gordon, is a freshman who doesn’t stretch beyond his considerable high ceiling. He has made 21 of 34 shots for the season, including 3 of 6 vs. Duke in a season-high 27 minutes.
“Rondae was as good on our side tonight as any of our players,” Miller said.