TUCSON, Ariz. — How comfortable is Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson when it comes to his team’s ability to hit shots on the perimeter?
Well, he’s as comfortable with it as with his running floater from about 12 feet out.
"We’re 23-1, so I’d rate it pretty much like everybody — pretty good," Johnson said on Tuesday when asked to rate the Wildcats’ perimeter shooting.
Shooting — both from the free-throw line and from 3-point range — has surfaced as a trouble spot for the second-ranked Wildcats in recent weeks. Some wonder whether it could be a fatal flaw in the team’s national championship aspirations.
In a 3-point win over Oregon last week, the Wildcats were consistently off target on anything beyond 12 feet. They finished at 42 percent from the floor, but most of their made shots were around the basket.
Three nights later against Oregon State, it was much improved — with five made shots out of Arizona’s comfort zone (dunk or layup) in the second half and 11 in the first half.
No question when Arizona is hitting perimeter shots, it’s very good. Combined with a suffocating defense, inside firepower and explosive transition game, it turns the Wildcats into a team few can beat.
But the Oregon State game (50 percent shooting) was not their recent norm. In the four games preceding, they hit 42 percent (Oregon), 32 percent (California), 36 percent (Stanford) and 40 percent (Utah). The California game was their only loss.
Then again, the Wildcats made 55 percent in their first meeting against Arizona State, their next opponent on Friday night.
Somewhere in between lies Arizona’s true identity, even with the absence of Brandon Ashley, who underwent successful surgery on a season-ending foot injury on Tuesday. If the Wildcats have their transition game in high gear, the number will be closer to the high end. The problem comes when they need to play at a more measured pace.
The Wildcats are making 35 percent of their 3-point shots overall, a number that ranks sixth in the Pac-12, but since the conference schedule begin in January, they’re hitting just 31 percent with 49 made 3-pointers in 11 games. Only last-place USC ranks lower in either category.
Arizona ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in free-throw percentage at 66.4 percent.
Those kind of numbers don’t exactly scream "cut down the nets," but Johnson thinks in a roundabout way, the loss of Ashley could have a positive impact in those areas. His absence means more playing time for the likes of Gabe York and freshman Elliott Pitts.
"When we lost Brandon, we opened up a few more opportunities," Johnson said. "Obviously we didn’t want to lose someone valuable to our team, but it opens up opportunities for guys like Elliott a little more. He’s someone who can stretch the floor more for us."
York has been the Wildcats’ best outside threat, hitting a team-best 41.2 percent from 3-point range.
"He’s made some big shots this season and being out there more, he’s going to have more of an opportunity," coach Sean Miller said.
It’s not as if the Wildcats have ignored the issue. After Sunday’s win over Oregon State, freshman Aaron Gordon said people don’t realize how much they work on their shooting, including him.
Miller said it started last spring when he "set a premium on shooting."
At the end of last season, for example, the team gathered to shoot three times a week, putting up as many as 700 shots. That emphasis carried over into the summer and during the season.
The same can be said for free throws.
"We try to simulate pressure," Miller said. "I know we aren’t the only team in the country doing that. … Shooting is a big premium in what we try to do here and the development of it."
Miller acknowledged that the mid-range jumper (12 to 17 feet) is becoming a lost art. Its value has been downgraded because of the 3-pointer.
"If you do the math, it’s not a good shot many times," Miller said. "An 18-foot two you’d have to make one out of two, but if you back up a foot, you have to make one out of three to get the same value.
"The 3-point shot, the inside shot and the foul shot are the three best."
As for his team’s free-throw struggles, Miller continues to say he’s confident in his players. Gordon has been the biggest question mark, sitting at 41.8 percent after missing 9 of 11 attempts against Oregon. Remove Gordon’s numbers from the equation and UA is shooting a respectable 72 percent from the line. But you can’t, especially considering he’s second to only Johnson in getting to the line.
What’s he doing to improve?
"It’s shooting, repetition … over and over and over," Gordon said. "I put myself in game situations. I’m not going to let myself be a poor free-throw shooter. With my maturity level rising and me becoming older, I know I’m going to be a great free-throw shooter not just a good one."