It’s good to be Arizona guard Nick Johnson these days
TUCSON, Ariz. — It started with just more than four minutes left in the first half for Nick Johnson and, seemingly, didn’t stop.
He hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key and followed it with another, and then, well, hit another for good measure. It all came in a 90-second stretch Tuesday night in which Arizona started to pull away from visiting Texas Tech in McKale Center. It ended with an 18-point night for Johnson and a 79-58 win for the No. 2 Wildcats.
Good fortune and good shots have found the Arizona leader in a good way lately. In fact, all things considered, his intelligent and efficient season so far may have started in early November and continued as Arizona moved to 8-0.
Last week in a win against Duke, he was the epitome of success, bringing home the NIT MVP.
OMG … at least that’s how he is playing. In fact, Johnson is in a comfort zone, especially against Texas Tech’s zone.
Johnson was humble, saying his teammates found him in the right spots during that three 3-pointer stretch where Arizona went from up 24-19 to ahead 35-21 just before the half. But, hey, he still needed to hit the shot, although he did say he’s tried to “be more assertive on offense.”
“You can tell that the game has slowed down for him,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “He’s not having a good game (just) because he’s making a ton of shots. He impacts the game so many ways.”
It’s good to be Johnson these days, where it seems everything that goes up goes in.
“He’s an improved shooter (and) knows what to do; he’s experienced,” Miller said. “He’s a junior and a three-year starter. A lot of the experience Nick Johnson has gone through has allowed him to grow.”
While everyone with a microphone in front of them is saying Duke’s Jabari Parker, Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Creighton’s Doug McDermott are — or have been — the best players in college basketball these days (November and early December), Miller said people need to take a look at Johnson … even if it just involves guards.
“I’ll tell you this,” Miller said, “there aren’t many guards that are playing college basketball that are more important to their team or any better than Nick Johnson right now.”
T.J. McConnell won’t argue with Miller. Then again, McConnell may be a bit biased in as much as Miller said the two have a special synergy of knowing where the other is and play off it well.
“He’s on a different level,” McConnell said. “He’s really stepped up and made big shots when we’ve needed to. He played great tonight. He’s been playing great for us.”
Who isn’t? Arizona is rolling with numbers that are eye-popping yet normal for the players.
Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said Arizona “is a tough matchup for anybody.” And Smith knows about that type of team. He coached Kentucky to a national championship in 1998. He also knows about playing against it.
“They are very talented; the best team we’ve played so far,” Smith said. “I thought Pittsburgh (a team receiving votes in the polls) was pretty good. This is a tough place to play. Sean had them ready to play.”
Arizona jumped out to a 10-0 lead then played a little fast and loose with the ball in the first half (having 11 turnovers, yet still led 35-25 at the half) and then pulled away in the second half, outscoring the Red Raiders 44-33.
“They were relentless on the boards,” Smith said of UA’s 43-23 rebounding advantage. “I was impressed with their athleticism.”
That is Arizona in a nutshell.
Figure Aaron Gordon, who entered the game averaging 12.6 points and 9.1 rebounds a game, finished with 19 points and eight rebounds. Reserve Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had nine points and eight rebounds. McConnell had a career-high 10 assists (Johnson said he should have had 13 but Arizona missed some shots) and sophomore Brandon Ashley had 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“Brandon Ashley, on offense, that was one of his best games that he has played at Arizona,” Miller said. “In the first half, we needed someone to make big shots against their zone, and he did it.”
Ashley, who went 6 for 8 from the floor including 2 for 2 from beyond the 3-point line, said success is happening because of all the hard work he’s put in. The payoff is now.
“I’m still putting in the work right now,” Ashley said. “I have a (good) comfort level.”
And, as a team it’s a level Arizona hasn’t been at since 2003 when it was ranked No. 2 to finish the regular season, but was No. 1 a week before. For Miller, all this is new in being No. 2. And, in a refreshing answer about being up there, he spoke about “rarefied air” … that he was fine with it. In fact, he said it was “a healthy thing to talk about.”
So, he did. Coaches don’t talk about stuff like that. Yet, Miller did.
“I think it’s something we all have to take a look at,” Miller said. “Sometimes in your sporting life an opportunity knocks that doesn’t come around very often – if ever. To have a chance to be ranked as the No. 1 team in the nation is something all of us would feel really good about, for obvious reasons.”
Miller said it’s not the team’s “end goal” but when you have that as the proverbial carrot things matter more. Practices stay crisp. Games feel fun.
“Everything what we do takes on a more added importance because you’re (looking) at rarefied air to be the No. 1 team in the nation. Our team is thinking in those terms. I think it’ll only bring out the best in us.”