NIT finale becomes freshman showdown

NEW YORK -- Boy, college basketball fans are in for a Black Friday treat.

Two weeks after that fantastic Champions Classic doubleheader in Chicago, we get another top-10 clash -- No. 4 Arizona versus No. 6 Duke, at Madison Square Garden, no less.

The fabulous freshmen have been the top story of the young season, and two of the finest -- Duke’s Jabari Parker and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon -- will go toe-to-toe Friday night.

They certainly didn’t disappoint in Wednesday’s NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals. Parker poured in a game-high 27 points in Duke’s 74-64 win over Alabama. Gordon posted a double-double (10 points, 13 rebounds) in Arizona’s 66-62 victory over Drexel.

Parker and Gordon were ranked Nos. 2 and 4 in the ESPN 100 as seniors a year ago, and they are certainly living up to the billing.

Gordon, a 6-foot-9 forward from San Jose, Calif., is within a whisker of averaging a double-double, at 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

“His first six games for me have been great,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s a pleasure to coach. As talented as he is on the floor, he’s an even better kid and teammate.

“Aaron’s not gonna wow you with 25 shot attempts, if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you really pay attention to the stat sheet, he played between the 3 and the 4 [positions] -- in 35 minutes he had 13 rebounds, 10 points. ... I think any time you have a player with 10 points, 13 rebounds, they’re adding tremendous value.”

Parker, a 6-foot-8 swingman from Chicago, was nearly perfect against Alabama, making 9 of 12 shots from the floor and 9 of 10 from the foul line, plus eight rebounds. He’s averaging 23.2 points, and has scored 20 or more in seven consecutive games to start his collegiate career.

The last freshman to pull that off? Kevin Durant. But Parker didn’t sound too impressed with his performance Wednesday.

“I think I’ve got a long ways to go,” Parker said. “Just need to stay sharp, or be sharp in the beginning of the game. I lacked that in the first couple minutes. Nothing is coming too easy.”

Alabama coach Anthony Grant was much more impressed.

“He’s probably, in eight years as a head coach, the most talented freshman I’ve seen just from his size, his physicality and his skill level,” Grant said. “He’s able to make tough shots and free himself for the open shot and he’s able to get himself to the free throw line. He’s just a really, really talented player.”

Parker has the early lead in the Freshman of the Year race, but Arizona has the higher ranking heading into the NIT championship showdown. The Wildcats are 6-0, and have Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski concerned.

“Arizona’s probably ahead of some other teams,” Krzyzewski said. “They have guys that have played prominent roles back, and then they’ve added a great guard [T.J. McConnell' and a great wing [Gordon] to their lineup.

“They’re big – it’ll be completely different than playing [Alabama]. We’re not real big, so that’ll be interesting, how we try to get that done.”

Duke is 6-1, its only loss coming against No. 2 Kansas in Chicago. The Blue Devils were in the top 10 in the country in points per game (92.7) and offensive field goal percentage (55.0) entering the semis, and Parker looks practically unstoppable. The Wildcats don’t have a scorer who can match him.

That being said, Arizona arrived in New York ranked fourth in the country in field goal percentage defense (33.3), and has yet to give up more than 62 points in a game.

“We have to defend. We have to be an elite rebounding team,” Miller said. “And then our offense, we’re gonna do it with balance, we’re gonna do it where different players on any given night can step up.”

Two top-10 teams with legitimate national championship aspirations, on the brightest stage in college basketball? That’s must-see TV, and certainly something to be thankful for this holiday weekend.

Enjoy Parker and Gordon while you can, college hoops fans. They’ll be moving on before too long.