NEW YORK — A day before he hit the stage at Madison Square Garden last week, forward Aaron Gordon sent out a warning.
“I think my energy level is about to pick up,” he said.
So much so that, while helping the Arizona Wildcats win their fourth NIT Season Tip-Off, Gordon made the NIT’s all-tournament team and elevated himself more than ever into the national chatter about the nation’s top freshmen.
You know, the one that generally considers Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle the top college basketball freshmen, with Gordon, by many accounts, trailing just behind.
Maybe he’s higher than that now, having not only collected 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks against Duke but also taking on a large share of the defensive assignment for the previously almost unguardable Parker, who scored less than 20 points for the first time in his college career.
UA coach Sean Miller, for one, tried to stump for Gordon. When he was asked after UA’s 72-66 win over Duke about Parker and Gordon, Miller talked about how dynamic Parker was, then added this:
“Aaron Gordon, you know, (since) we are talking about the freshman conversation, Aaron is not going to score 30,” Miller said. “He’s not a volume shooter. … If you think about what he really did — he guarded (Duke wing Rodney) Hood and Parker. He had seven rebounds and some of the best passes on offense for us. He made a big three-point shot and his free-throw shooting is getting better.
“And he’s a basketball player. He’s a guy you love to have 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.”
That’s the way Miller steers the conversation. And Gordon, too, says he’s capable of keeping up with the game’s other top freshmen.
Except the way Gordon and those around him tell it, he really doesn’t pay much attention to that conversation, anyway.
Mostly just the one inside his head.
“I keep myself to such high expectations, that when I don’t really feel like I’m playing up to my standards,” Gordon said. “That’s when I get down on myself. Nobody can understand that but me.”
Some perspective here on Gordon’s standards: Before he entered New York, Gordon was averaging 13.0 points and 9.0 rebounds a game, shooting 48.1 percent from the field, and blocking almost two shots a game.
Sure, he missed some free throws — 12 of his first 21, in fact — but he also had an excuse that he barely talked about.
Not only was Gordon adjusting to the college game and his new teammates, but he was also dealing with a groin strain he suffered in October. Even while Miller warned earlier this month that it was a “nagging” injury that would require long-term management, Gordon was saying he was fine.
He wasn’t, really. He said his rhythm and energy were affected somewhat by the strain.
“It was a little bit rough,” he said before the New York games. “I thought it was going to go away. It went on a lot longer than I expected it to.
“It affects my energy level. It’s really hard to be as energetic as I want to be if there’s a twinge or a pain every time I try to run or offensive rebound.”
But he says he won’t use that as an excuse. By his standards, he was also just not quite himself.
“I think that I’ve done an OK job,” he said before the NIT semifinals. “That’s really what I would say. I know I’m capable of a lot more than I’m showing. I have to turn it up.”
He did. Gordon collected 20 points and 20 rebounds over UA’s two games at Madison Square Garden, shooting 6 for 12 from the field. He made 7 of 8 free throws over the two games, and after having three turnovers against Drexel on Wednesday, dished out four assists to only one turnover Friday.
One of those assists came inside when he passed to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a dunk with 13 minutes left, cutting Duke’s lead to four points. Then Gordon took his only three-pointer, a big one that pulled the Wildcats within 43-42 with 12:14 to go.
Just over a minute later, Nick Johnson hit a three to tie the game at 45, then Brandon Ashley scored to put the Wildcats ahead … and Arizona never trailed again.
That’s the kind of result Gordon says he wants to see.
“This game, I wasn’t disappointed,” Gordon said Friday night. “I did what my teammates needed me to do to win. I played within myself, was patient, and I helped other teammates shine.”