Hollis-Jefferson highlights Arizona’s fun time at No. 1

TUCSON, Ariz. — The one — and only — player who might have been hurt in Arizona’s 74-48 win over New Mexico State on Wednesday night was freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

And even then it was just in fun. Blowouts tend to bring out the verbal jabs and one-liners. As do big dunks and big shots, and the Wildcats had it all in its first game after being voted No. 1 in both polls.

Arizona had 16 points off dunks alone.

So, when backcourt leader T.J. McConnell was asked to talk about the merits of whose dunk was better between Nick Johnson’s 360-breakaway or Hollis-Jefferson’s dominant one-handed slam in what turned out to be a laugher, McConnell tried to go with a straight face — knowing that Hollis-Jefferson was sitting next him in the post-game press conference.

“I would say that Rondae’s was all right,” McConnell said as it brought raised eyebrows to the freshman. “Nick’s was all right. I’ve seen better, so …”

Right away, Brandon Ashley said, “that’s crazy, crazy” shortly before Hollis-Jefferson, with a wide smile, said he was emotionally hurt by the critique.

Such is life in the world of Arizona basketball where everything is going right and everyone is having fun.

Except, of course, the Wildcats’ opponents.

“We ran into a better team, and they’re the No. 1 team in the nation for a reason,” said New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies, whose team is now 7-5 overall. “I have to give credit when credit is due, but I think we didn’t play as well as we could have.”

Arizona had a lot to do with that. The Wildcats were too athletic and too talented for the Aggies. Not many teams will be as athletic or talented, part of the reason why Arizona is now 10-0 this season.

On Wednesday night, it was hard to figure who had the best game. It was a four-star game with McConnell again leading the team with six assists and adding nine points. Kaleb Tarczewski’ had a miss-free 14-point effort — 5 for 5 from the floor and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line. Brandon Ashley had a game-high 15 points, and Hollis-Jefferson finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.

How was Rondae’s energy?

“Sheezz,” Ashley said.

“I thought Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was the best player of the game,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He made some timely, good plays.”

One was the monster dunk that many who have witnessed years of games at McKale Center said was one of the better slams in the last 30 years.

“I can’t coach what Rondae did,” Miller said. “I think he grabbed the guy (who was guarding him) took him and put him in the rim (with) the ball. That’s what you call going strong.”

Jefferson said he was just “giving it my all.”

As for the dunk, Hollis-Jefferson said he was just responding to Miller’s instructions from the previous huddle to attack.

“I said I’ve got to do it, so that’s what I did,” he said smiling.

Longtime Arizona coach Lute Olson said via text that Hollis-Jefferson reminds him of Andre Iguodala.

Who’s to argue? Versatile, athletic, smart and effective.

“He did it in all facets of the game,” Miller said. “He did everything.”

The same could be said for the Aggies in their attempt to unnerve the No. 1 Wildcats. Miller said the Aggies threw everything but the Globetrotters’ confetti-in-the-bucket skit at them.

Among the tactics was a triangle-and-two defense — “and that will work for a little bit, but it’s not going to work over the long haul. We have too much firepower.”

NMSU also used a “tandem and three,” which Miller said he hadn’t seen since he was in the fourth grade (he was serious).

“You’re going to see a lot of college games, and I don’t know if you’ll see that defense,” Miller said. “It’ll be effective because they have a 7-foot-5 guy (Sim Bhuller) in there. It just feels different, but once you get the hang of it … there’s a reason why no one plays it. We broke them down.”

No matter what the Aggies — the 1-3-1 zone, 2-2-1 three-quarter-court press, man-to-man or a 2-3 zone — the Cats eventually had an answer.

“It was almost like practice where your ability to teach and coach and where the next time you see these things, we’ll know what to do,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, I like our numbers.”

The key one is 10 — as in victories. Arizona has gone at least 10-0 in back-to-back years for the first time in school history. Last year, Arizona started 14-0.

“We’re very proud of it,” Miller said. “Some of the guys in the locker room have been on both teams. It’s a credit to them getting better every day and working hard between games. It’s not easy to play UNLV and in a quick turnaround and be ready for another opponent.

“Now we have to do it again in a huge game against Michigan.”

 That comes Saturday in Michigan.

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