LOS ANGELES — Solomon Hill will tie a school record for games played when he starts Arizona’s NCAA West Regional game here Thursday at Staples Center, and it goes without saying that the Wildcats would not be here without him.
He has come full circle, from Los Angeles high school star to the All-Pac-12 team to an NCAA regional a few minutes from his home, but for him this is only a stopover, an opportunity to start a second lap, when the No. 18 Wildcats take on No. 7 Ohio State on Thursday.
“We have a chance to do something great and become one of the guys on the wall that people remember,” Hill said. “Everybody watches the highlights of Steve Kerr and Sean Elliott and guys like that. We have a chance to do something that they didn’t do.”
Hill, junior Jordin Mayes and freshman Grant Jerrett have returned home for the regional, and it is no surprise they are shooting high. They beat Belmont and Harvard by a combined 40 points as the No. 6 seed in the West last weekend in Salt Lake, led by Mark Lyons and a stifling defense that re-emerged after a midseason lull.
“I think a month ago set us up to where we are right now,” Hill said. “Guys are refocused on what made us successful early on in the season. We lost our way and got happy and started looking past games. We didn’t take each game as it came. Now we are back on schedule to where we need to be. We lost a chance for the Pac-12 regular champs, but I think we’ve refocused at a great time. I think our timing couldn’t be any better.”
Hill’s timing has been impeccable. After decommitting from USC in the summer of 2009 as the NCAA began an investigation into the recruiting practices involving O.J. Mayo, Hill has started his 112 games and will tie Kyle Fogg with his 139th appearance today. He was asked to play out of position at power forward two years ago, and he slimmed down to 8 percent body fat to take over at small forward this year — though he’s gotten more time at power forward as the season’s played on. He has been the Wildcats’ leading rebounder at times and their ball-handling point forward at others.
He became the seventh player in school history with 1,400 points and 750 rebounds last week when he scored nine points against Belmont. He is averaging 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds a game and has set season highs in assists, blocked shots and steals. It goes further … Hill has worn the Wildcats’ gold practice jersey for the last two weeks, a jersey that goes to the best practice player as determined by an evaluation of stats and intangibles.
“So he’s a terrific player, but what he embodies is really far more than that,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s a leader. He’s matured off the court as much as any kid I’ve been around. He deserves to be here, and I know that with him on our team, it’s one of the many reasons we feel like we can advance.
“He reminds me of Damien Wilkins, who has had a long NBA career. I say that because Solomon’s greatest characteristic, like Damien’s, is his will, his incredible work ethic, his competitive spirit. He’s been our best practice player from the day he stepped on our campus as a freshman to his last days as a senior. This week he has the gold jersey, which I think is fitting, because if I’m not mistaken, he might have had it in the first month of his freshman year.”
Hill has been consistent in his NCAA appearances. He is averaging 10 points and seven rebounds a game in six games, four in 2011 and two this year. He had his first career tournament double-double last week against Harvard, with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“I’ve been in some of the greatest moments and some of the lowest moments of the program these last four years,” Hill said. “Hopefully I can break the (games played) record and push the record. It’s been fun. It makes you appreciate every moment you’re on the floor. That’s all you can do. You can’t control anything else but your effort.”
Jerrett, who, like Hill, will spend some defensive time on Ohio State star forward Deshaun Thomas on Thursday, said Hill has been like a mentor.
“He pulls me over in practice and tells me to do this, do that. Little things like that help a freshman a lot,” Jerrett said. “He’s a teacher as well. It doesn’t happen all the time. You have to be lucky sometimes.”
Mayes, who lives about 15 minutes from Staples Center, has played well in his two appearances on the NCAA tournament stage. He played a major role in the Wildcats’ sweep in Salt Lake City last week, scoring 11 points in 35 minutes while also providing defensive help on the perimeter, especially against Belmont 3-point specialist Laurent Rivard. His 19 minutes tied his NCAA tournament career high, set against Texas in 2011.
Ah, Texas. Mayes had a career-high 16 points in a 70-69 second-round victory over Texas on March 20, 2011, hitting all four of his 3-point attempts before Derrick Williams won the game with a 3-point play in the final seconds. Mayes also had two assists and two steals while playing 19 minutes.
“It’s good basketball. Good teams. I love the competition,” Mayes said of his NCAA experience. “It’s going out there and playing hard and having confidence in myself and in my teammates. It was a great feeling to be able to go out there and help my team like that.”
Mayes, the UA’s third guard behind Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson, has had some of his best games of late, scoring eight points in three of the last six games after working through a tough stretch when he scored only seven points in 11 games. His resurgence started the last time he was home, when he had eight points in the UCLA game March 2.
“We had a lot of competitive segments in practice, and it starts in practice,” Mayes said. “Being able to out there and play my game in practice and being able to transfer it into a game, which I have been doing. I love playing with these guys. This is a great time of the year for us. We are playing great basketball right now.”