GIMINO: Just Rondae things

GIMINO: Just Rondae things
By Anthony Gimino / Special for Tucson News Now

LAS VEGAS -- Rondae Hollis-Jefferson started the game defending Cal's best shooter, Jordan Mathews. He later guarded two players at the point, including the Bears' leading scorer, Tyrone Wallace.

He switched to talented wing Jabari Bird. He tangled with power forward Dwight Tarwater. For one possession, after a defensive switch, Hollis-Jefferson battled down low with Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1, 254-pound big man, using his athleticism to get around and deny the pass. Later, he handled Cal post player David Kravish, helping with a trap in the corner that led to a steal.

In all, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was everywhere. He guarded eight Cal Bears in the first half, inside and outside, a testament to the kind of defensive ability that might not be duplicated anywhere in the country. Within the Pac-12, of course, he's not even the Defensive Player of the Year … so, for our purposes, he will forthwith be referred to as NDPOY -- Not Defensive Player of the Year.

(Insert sound of Arizona fans laughing at the snub of NDPOY.)

We're not here, though, to re-litigate the coaches' selection of Oregon State guard Gary Payton II over Hollis-Jefferson, although that nugget was newsworthy Thursday inasmuch as the latter admitted his omission provided the extra boost of rocket fuel apparent in Arizona's 73-51 win over Cal in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals.

NDPOY played as if he had been plugged into the Las Vegas power grid.

"I definitely had an edge from the start of the game," he said.

No kidding.

Anticipating the kind of lopsided game this ended up being, I focused almost all of my time just watching how the NDPOY went about the business of playing the best defense in the league. We hear all the time from coach Sean Miller that NDPOY guards point guards through power forwards, but Hollis-Jefferson pretty much guarded everybody in this game -- point guard through center.

Mathews hit an early 3-pointer against NDPOY -- more on that later -- but that came a play after Hollis-Jefferson ripped down a defensive rebound and went coast-to-coast for a layup, finishing with a dipsy-do move at the rim.

After banging with Okoroh, he came off the big fella to help on a drive to the hoop. His redirection helped the shot miss, and NDPOY grabbed the rebound. A couple of plays after that, he was on guard Sam Singer. A couple of plays after that, he was on Tarwater.

It's amazing how seamlessly Hollis-Jefferson shifts assignments, going from the perimeter to the paint, from chasing little guys around screens to muscling up bigger guys down low.

"It's kind of unbelievable what he does on defense," said Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski.

So unbelievable that when Miller considers the best defenders he has ever coached, he picks the 2015 NDPOY and the 2014 version of guard Nick Johnson. No disrespect, Miller adds, to what current Cats T.J. McConnell and Kaleb Tarczewski bring to the defensive end, as well as the shut-down skills of former Arizona guard Kyle Fogg and ex-forward Aaron Gordon.

"If Aaron had come back as a sophomore, he maybe could have catapulted all of them," Miller said earlier this week.

Hollis-Jefferson did come back as a sophomore, and the suggestion in the postgame locker room that he would have to come back as a junior so he could actually win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award draw hearty laughs.

Uh, no. Enjoy him while you can.

The NDOY ended up with 10 points, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals against Cal. Twice, he went coast-to-coast after a defensive rebound. He stalked Wallace on a fast break, swatting a layup attempt from behind. How many times did he hit the court in pursuit of a loose ball? So many that not even he could even remember afterward.

What he did remember, though, is how many points he gave up in one-on-one situations. I counted eight -- all in the first half. The NDPOY concurred.

I asked if he was pleased with that number of points allowed.

"It could have been less. I'm not going to lie," he said. "There were a couple of drives where they beat me of the dribble and that does not normally happen. So, I would say that was a little high for tonight."

At 6-7, 220 pounds, NDPOY has the body for this kind of work, but winning the genetic lottery is only part of his story.

"Rondae is also one of the smartest players I've ever been around," Miller said. "He is in the right place at the right time. There is a lot going on out there, and he seems to be in the middle of it on almost every possession."

In practice, too.

NDPOY, it is easy to tell, has a special relationship with point guard T.J. McConnell. McConnell, from Pittsburgh, joked in a press conference a couple of weeks ago about Hollis-Jefferson being "soft" because he was from the Philadelphia area. After Thursday's game, McConnell was asked if there were instances in practice when he was guarded by the NDPOY.

"That actually does happen," McConnell said, setting up his own punch line, "but it doesn't end up too well for him."

Well, that comment was instantly related to NDPOY (guilty as charged), who broke out a big ol' Rondae grin.

"I'll let you know, when I guard T.J. the whole practice changes," he said. "He goes from running the show to kind of like passing it around. That's because I control him and what he wants to do. I make him do what I want to do."

More seriously, he added, "He's one of the best point guards in the country, and it's tough to guard him."

And it's tough to be guarded by the NDPOY.

A full game of Rondae-watching only confirmed that notion.

Anthony Gimino has covered University of Arizona athletics for more than two decades, including as the football beat writer for the Arizona Daily Star and the columnist for the Tucson Citizen.

Pic Courtesy: Arizona Athletics