Rivalry means more for pals Carson, Johnson

TEMPE, Ariz. – Jahii Carson has seen Nick Johnson do some pretty amazing things.

“Eight, nine years old, touching backboard and stuff,” Carson recalled.

Johnson still has the hops and Carson the ball-handling skills that they began to develop as teammates with the Arizona Stars, a Phoenix-area AAU team. More than a dozen years later, the two will oppose each other for the first time in college when Johnson and No. 7 Arizona (15-1) meet Carson and Arizona State (14-3) on Saturday afternoon.

“He was always cool. He was always athletic. Just crazy the things he could do. It’s exciting for me to see how good he is doing and how well he is holding his composure being on his team,” Carson said as he prepared for his first intrastate rivalry game.

Born less than four months apart, Carson and Johnson were almost inseparable on the Phoenix basketball circuit, linked by their standout talent. They played on the same team in summer ball. They attended the same camps. They played on all-star teams together. They even kept each other in the loop when picking colleges, although that decision naturally pushed them apart.

“We were long-term friends, especially in elementary and junior high days,” Carson said.

Their last competition, to the best of Carson’s recollection, came in a junior high game in eighth grade. Carson later attended high school at both Phoenix Mountain Pointe and Mesa, while Johnson played two years at Gilbert Highland before transferring to elite Findlay Prep in suburban Las Vegas. The details of the last meeting remain a bit fuzzy to Carson.

“I like to think my team won that game. I’m not sure. But I’m going to go with my team winning it,” Carson said to laughter in a press conference Wednesday.

Carson, who has followed the rivalry through games involving Ike Diogu, James Harden, Salim Stoudamire and Andre Igoudala, said he is “champing at the bit.”

“That is one of the games you look forward to as a kid growing up wanting to play college basketball, the rival. If you want to go to Duke, you dream about Carolina. Michigan, you dream about Michigan State. Arizona and Arizona State is one of the games I’ve been looking forward to ever since the season started,” he said.

Carson enters Saturday’s game averaging 17.1 points and 5.2 assists per game, ranked fifth and second in the Pac-12, respectively. Johnson, who does not handle the ball as much as Carson because he is the off guard rather than the point, is averaging 12.3 points and 2.9 assists per game. Johnson had 19 points and seven rebounds when the teams split their season series last year, games Carson could only watch because he was academically ineligible.  

Despite their familiarity, the two are not likely to guard each other, with Carson expected to be matched up with Wildcats point guard Mark Lyons. Like Carson, Lyons is new to the rivalry after transferring to Arizona from Xavier for his final year of eligibility. Lyons is averaging 14.6 points and 3.3 assists a game.

“I think he’s good. He brings a physical play to the game,” Carson said. “He’s a mature guy. He brings that mature presence in the game. I’m always looking forward to a point guard (matchup), especially a good point guard. I evaluate myself, so that gives me a chance to evaluate myself against a top-notch guard.”

Both teams are 3-1 in the Pac-12 — a game out of the conference lead — and among the four 14-win teams in the league. Considering that, Carson was asked what a victory would mean for ASU.

“I think that will give us a good buzz,” Carson said. “I think that will give us a lot of national recognition, too. A lot of people will start to think that we can play. We just had a tough game with Oregon (a 68-65 loss), and they are a top-25 team now. Beating U of A will give us a lot of national pub, and I think that will give our team a lot of confidence going into the UCLA/USC teams (next week). Those are good teams as well.

“If we can get a win against U of A, I think our confidence will go up a little notch.”