SAN DIEGO — Nerves can be expected from anyone participating in college basketball’s most prestigious tournament, regardless of age.
But when freshmen forwards Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Aaron Gordon took the floor for the No. 1-seeded Arizona Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64, all apprehension dissipated; their concentration was focused on the task at hand.
“It’s all about stepping up to the challenge,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “As freshmen, we know we play a big role on the team. We just have to come out there and play hard — give it our all.”
This year for Arizona, freshmen and sophomores have been called upon to take up big roles.
Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon have been important in allowing the Wildcats to extend possessions through efficiently clearing the offensive glass and, together, account for 170 of the team’s 435 offensive rebounds (39.1 percent).
In Arizona’s tournament opener against 16-seed Weber State, the two combined to shoot with 75 percent accuracy from the field.
In the 68-59 victory, Hollis-Jefferson led the team with two steals and helped switch the game’s momentum towards the Wildcats’ with a balanced performance.
Hollis-Jefferson compiled four rebounds and two blocks while shooting flawlessly from the field — sinking each of his five jumpers for 13 points — putting to rest any question regarding early tournament jitters.
After the Wildcats’ first-round triumph, Hollis-Jefferson said he felt comfortable on the floor despite playing on a national stage.
“I did what I had to do out there to get the win,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s a great feeling to get your first NCAA [Tournament] victory. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
Sophomore guard Gabe York commended the young forward’s work ethic and enthusiasm, saying his versatility never ceases to amaze him. York, along with other starters like junior guard Nick Johnson, added that Hollis-Jefferson and Gordon play and perform unlike most of the other freshmen they’ve seen.
“They’re poised,” York said. “They’ve been poised all year, and I’m always impressed with the way they play. Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson] came in and gave us an edge of intensity, and that’s what we look for him to do every game.”
Gordon, who is expected to declare for the NBA draft after the season’s end, has carried the Wildcats on his back countless times this year while improving his range and utilizing his physical presence in the paint.
Friday’s game was no exception. He pulled down a team-leading eight rebounds, compiled a career-high five blocks and dished out three assists while scoring 16 points.
“It’s a big time tournament, but it’s something you have to rise to the occasion [for],” Gordon said. “I felt like I did pretty well for my first time. It was fun.”
Over his freshman campaign, Gordon emerged as the team’s most versatile player, taking on huge offensive and defensive roles and prospering in his first collegiate performances. He recorded double-doubles in four of his first six games and scored double digits in each of his first eight starts.
He has grabbed a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game and ranks second among starters in scoring with an average of 12.3 points per game.
Gordon’s only blemish this year has been his staggering inability to sink free throws, something that has followed him into tournament play. He is shooting with 43 percent accuracy from the stripe on the season and was 1-for-4 from the line in Arizona’s win over Weber State.
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17