TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona guard Nick Johnson grew up in Arizona State country and is the son of a former ASU player in Joey Johnson.
He knows the pain of losing at Wells Fargo Arena, as Arizona did so two years go in a game that all but knocked the Wildcats out of NCAA tournament contention. He also knows the joy of winning, as Arizona destroyed ASU last year in Tempe (and did again this season at McKale Center in January).
The in-state rivalry game is always a big one, but it carries special significance for Johnson, the junior leader for the second-ranked Wildcats, who will be trying to improve to 24-1 overall.
"It feels good going home," said Johnson, who grew up in Gilbert. "I didnât really get a chance to play there too much when I was in high school. It’s definitely an honor to go back there. I’m going to have a lot of friends and family there, so it’s going to be a good one."
Whether it actually ends up being a good one depends in large part on which Arizona shows up. If the Wildcats play like they did last time out against the Sun Devils, they should be able to check one big road win off the schedule as the regular season inches to a close. In January, Arizona crushed ASU 91-68 to improve to 18-0, with seven players scoring in double figures and the team shooting 56 percent. It was also the last truly complete game the Wildcats played, although they came close last weekend in a rout of Oregon State.
Arizona coach Sean Miller referred to Marshall this week as "an all-conference" player and a "difference-maker," one who can create his own shot.
"They have a great backcourt, and that’s why they are having such a great season," Miller said of ASU.
Johnson, a shooting guard who likely will match up with Marshall, added, "He’s a shooter. Unfortunately he didn’t play the first time, but we were looking forward to playing him. I was looking forward to guarding him."
In the meantime, Johnson has watched and observed Marshall’s game from afar. What he sees is a veteran who is averaging more than 20 points over the last four games and is one of the biggest reasons Arizona State is 18-6 overall and in the hunt for an NCAA tournament berth.
"He’s a great pace-changer (compared) to Jahii, (who goes) to the rim and attacks," Johnson said. "He’s more of a shooter. I’m definitely looking forward to playing ASU at full strength."
"I think it put more pressure on (Bachynski)," Miller said of not having Marshall last game. ""This game will be much more difficult because they another shooter on the court. Bachynski is getting better as his career unfolds. I don’t know if he’s ever been playing better."