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Arizona basketball: Who’s the MVP?

Aaron Gordon scored a career-high 21 points vs. Southern. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Gordon scored a career-high 21 points vs. Southern. Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Gordon was on the front page of ESPN.com on Thursday. The Arizona Wildcats freshman was at the top of Eamonn Brennan’s rankings for the Wooden Award.

Wait. What?

Gordon has been fine — more than fine — but it’s hard to be considered the best player in the country when you haven’t been the best player on your own team.

Of course, the beauty of top-ranked Arizona is that it is not about one player. Defenses can’t say, “We just have to stop that guy and we can win.”

If we were to rank Arizona’s MVP through a 12-0 start, which includes Thursday night’s 69-43 win over Southern at McKale Center, we’d go with:

Nick Johnson. Sean Miller called him the team’s MVP earlier this week, so who are we to argue? “He’s one of the smartest kids I have ever coached,” Miller said. Johnson gets it done offensively and defensively, and no one questions his basketball IQ or his clutchness.

“The value of him right now, it’s like having another point guard on the court,” Miller said.

T.J. McConnell. If “valuable” means “hardest to replace” then McConnell is at the top of this list. Arizona has nobody who can replicate McConnell’s point guard skills and on-court leadership; his calm demeanor has led the way for this team’s no-panic mode of operation (see, Michigan and/or Duke).

“He sees the game both on offense and defense,” Miller said. “When the ball is in his hands I think we all feel very comfortable.”

Added Gordon: “He has eyes on the side of his head and the back of his head.”

Brandon Ashley. Miller refers to Ashley as the team’s most improved player, and the sophomore has a more fluid all-around offensive game than Gordon at this point. He is hitting nearly 60 percent of his shots, more of which have come from 18 feet and beyond this season.

“No one has out-worked Brandon since the end of last season,” Miller said of Ashley’s improved shooting.

“We’re constantly trying to get him the ball more in scoring position because he can do it right now on the inside and also on the outside. We’re very efficient when Brandon’s involved on the offensive end.”

And yet when CBS opened its broadcast of Saturday’s game at Michigan, analyst Greg Anthony opened his comments about the Cats by praising Gordon.

Gordon scored a career-high 21 points against Southern on 8 of 11 shooting, but only one made basket came from beyond 10 feet. He’s a beast near the hoops with layups and SportsCenter dunks. His defense is uncommonly good, especially for a freshman.

For much of last night’s game, his motor seemed to be the only energy generator in McKale Center.

That’s all good. But there is little polish on his overall offensive game, which led SI.com to the (previously almost unthinkable) opinion that Gordon shouldn’t be a one-and-done player. Wrote SI.com: “Gordon’s best case may be to stay in school, develop a more diverse offensive game and come back as the favorite to be the top pick in 2015.”

And let’s address the Shaq-sized hole in his game.

Gordon’s adventures at the free throw line provided the biggest second-half thrills Thursday night. The McKale Crowd roared its loudest after halftime when he made back-to-back free throws with 14:32 left.

“I think it’s hilarious,” Gordon said of the crowd reaction after he had missed his first four free throw attempts of the game.

“It’s pretty much a realization that I’m not making any free throws when you get a standing ovation for making a free throw. It made me laugh. We have great fans. I know they are supportive of me. It just helped me shoot a little bit better.”

Less than a minute after making those two, he entirely missed the rim on an attempt.

Gordon was 4 of 10 from the line for the game, dropping his season percentage to 43.9 (25 of 57). He said he made 85 of 100 attempts before Thursday’s pregame shoot-around.

“My shot is fine,” he said.

“I feel like my mechanics are good. I just need to pick a spot on the rim and just go with it. I’m thinking about it too much. It’s something I’m not worried about.”


There isn’t all that much to worry about with the nation’s No. 1 team that has multiple reasonable candidates for MVP through the non-conference season, which wraps up Monday vs. NAU.

That mega-recruit Gordon isn’t the team’s runaway best player is good news. So take your pick of MVP. It’s a fun game to play with a team this balanced, where the pieces are fitting together perfectly and the wins just keep coming.

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