Arizona freshmen impress Miller with maturity

TUCSON, Ariz. — It’s been said when freshman show up on campus there are a number of bad habits coaches have to break.

Not so much for Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller when it comes to Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts, UA’s three freshmen on scholarships.  

“The freshman players are very well-coached and (junior) T.J. (McConnell) was very well-coached,” Miller said on Monday in preparing for visiting Texas Tech on Tuesday. “They all really understand concepts on offense and defense. What I’d like to think that each of them is growing and getting better.”

It’s hard to say they aren’t after UA won the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday and is now No. 2 in the country at 7-0.

Gordon has improved his outside shooting (one of the reasons he signed at Arizona was to become a better shooter on the perimeter), Hollis-Jefferson has had a resounding impact as a contributor off the bench, and Pitts has made strides when he’s been in there, although he’s been slowed with a wrist injury.

“(Gordon) is really working hard; it’s his work ethic and ability to learn and you can see it’s starting to pay off,” Miller said. “Same with Rondae. And it would not surprise me if (Pitts) does not work his way into our rotation moving forward. He knows how to play, and when you know that, it’s easier to improve.”

Although he’s been overshadowed by a handful of players, Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 forward, has played well in nearly every game. He’s long, lanky and already has played beyond his years. One college basketball analyst compared him to former UNLV player Stacey Augmon, a tremendous defender because of his long arms and athletic ability.

“He’s not exceeded my expectations,” said Miller. “He has tremendous ability. Knowing that he’s from Chester, Pennsylvania, nothing is given to those guys. They earn everything from the time they are 3 years old until they leave and move on to college. That was one of the exciting things about getting Rondae to come to our program. You know you’re getting a battle-tested fierce competitor. He’s as consistent as any young player we’ve had.”

Tough? He spent time on Duke’s freshman phenom Jabari Parker last week and did well. And when not on Parker he was on Rodney Hood. And he did an admirable job.

Going into Tuesday’s game, he ranks third on the team in getting to the free-throw line (31 attempts) and is one of the team’s toughest rebounders. He’s averaging 8.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.

“One of the things that is so refreshing about him is that he doesn’t think about scoring,” Miller said. “He just wants to win. He’s worked hard every day. He’s grown by leaps and bounds. Very seldom do we ask freshmen to learn more than one position (because) it’s very difficult. But with Aaron and Rondae, we’ve asked both to learn two (small forward and power forward) and that gives us more flexibility. When he (Hollis-Jefferson) comes into the game good things are happening.”

No. 2 and climbing

For the first time since he’s been here, Miller has Arizona ranked No. 2. Last year, UA was No. 3 before losing in the middle of January.

“I’d rather be ranked No. 2 than not ranked,” Miller said. “If we are ranked No. 2 in late February, I think it’s much more meaningful. We’re off to a good start … we’re playing good basketball.”

Miller said that being the No. 2 team in the country means that it will get every team’s best shot — now that this is a foreign concept.

“There isn’t a team we play that isn’t going to look at our game (as) something that is very meaningful to their team and season,” Miller said. “Being able to go on the road and beat Arizona in McKale Center would be something every team in this country would covet. We have to be aware and on guard that every game is an important one for us.”

Miller times 2

Also in the top 25 is No. 25 Dayton, coached by former UA associate head coach Archie Miller, who is Sean’s younger brother. He has the Flyers at 6-1 after upsetting then No. 10 Gonzaga last week in the Maui Invitational.

“I’m sure brothers being in the top 25 (at the same time) hasn’t happened a lot,” Miller said. “But he’s got a really good team. He’s had a chance to recruit two really good classes and I’m really happy for him and Dayton.”