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Nick Johnson will get the headlines, but Aaron Gordon was Arizona’s MVP vs. SDSU

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The conversation after No. 1 Arizona’s 70-64 win over No. 4 San Diego State is going to center around Nick Johnson.

He’s Arizona’s all-american shooting guard. He’s the guy that couldn’t buy a bucket for the first 37 minutes and 14 seconds. He’s also the guy that scored 15 of the final 16 points for the Wildcats, including a huge three and ten critical free throws.

He deserves the headlines that he is going to get.

But will get lost in the shuffle is just how many important plays that star freshman Aaron Gordon made in the second half that kept Arizona in a position for Johnson to close out the game.

Gordon finished with a solid line — 15 points, seven boards, two assists and two blocks — but that doesn’t do justice to the plays that he was able to make down the stretch. There was the thunderous, soaring alley-oop that he caught midway through the second half that trimmed what had been an eight-point SDSU lead down to 40-38. There was the tip-in he had on a T.J. McConnell airball that put the Wildcats up 52-50. There was the gorgeous assist that he dished out to Kaleb Tarczewski to push the lead to 54-51, setting the stage for Johnson’s finishing kick.

There were defensive rebounds that he grabbed in traffic. There were hedges that he made on ball-screens, helping to keep Xavier Thames from getting a full head of steam going towards the rim. There were double-teams that he drew and screens that he set.

He didn’t make every play for the Wildcats, but it sure seemed like he had some kind of a hand in all the important ones.

And that’s what Gordon has done all season long.

At this point in his development, Gordon is not all that skilled. He’s a capable perimeter shooter but not a great one. He’s a good ball-handler and a good passer, but not one that is good enough to be able to be a primary facilitator on the offensive end. He is, however, the best athlete left in the tournament, the best defender in all of college basketball and a guy whose motor never stops running.

In simpler terms, he’s Arizona’s best NBA prospect and he just so happens to be a prototype glue-guy. He’s the piece that brings the entire puzzle together for the Wildcats, and he showed why on Thursday night.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.