Nick Johnson Quietly and Efficiently Continues to Bolster His NPOY CandidacyPosted by Nick Fasulo on January 30th, 2014
Throughout this week, there was one topic being discussed in the Pac-12: What will it take to knock off the undefeated No. 1 Arizona Wildcats? It is a simple question that provided varying responses from the league’s coaches. But 21 games into their season, that question remains unanswered as the Wildcats stole a 60-57 victory over the Stanford Cardinal, avoiding an upset on the 10th anniversary of that shot, and finding yet another and different way to win. Wednesday, in the latest rendition, the approach was to lean on their star, junior guard Nick Johnson, who led all players with 16 points on a night when the rest of the team shot a dismal 14-of-41 from the field. “[Nick Johnson] is a great leader. He’s the leader of our team, both on and off the court.” said Ryan Reynolds, Arizona’s director of basketball operations. “When the game is on the line, he’s the guy we go to and he’s not afraid of the moment.”
Earlier this week, Arizona State coach Herb Sendek was quoted in a piece by USA Today’s Nicole Auerbach exclaiming that Johnson was the team’s best and most talented player, but point guard T.J. McConnell was the guy who “puts it all together.” That quote was representative of last night’s game. McConnell, quiet and unassuming, led the Wildcats in nearly every offensive statistic through the midway point of the second half. The Wildcats were sloppy, outmatched in the post, but the Duquense transfer held it together in the hopes that one of the team’s stars would step up and make a play to ensure victory.
Unable to ever really get on an offensive roll during the back-and-forth contest, Johnson’s go-ahead three-pointer with 49 seconds remaining followed up by crucial rebound of a Chasson Randle miss on the ensuing possession. This sequence served as the proverbial dagger and gave the Wildcats a lead for good. “That’s what the leader on this team is supposed to do,” said Johnson. “If you’re shaky and hesitant about everything then everybody else will be. I gotta keep that confidence in my mind and know that I’ve done the work to deserve this. “I’m mad at myself that I missed those free throws though.”
The narrative on Johnson has truly evolved throughout the season. From a nice athletic player on the wing to the best player in the Pac-12 to now a contender for National Player of the Year (he may be playing for second place behind Doug McDermott at this point), Johnson is now a bona fide stud who has ascended to a place where he’ll be expected to make big plays and fill up the box score on a nightly basis. There’s no question that Arizona can beat teams in a variety of ways, but the junior from Gilbert, Arizona, has emerged as the face of this team’s roster.
So now with two days off in the Bay Area to prep for a hungry California squad coming off of three losses in a row, Sean Miller and his staff can mull over the different ways how they’ve managed to maintain a zero in the loss column. They’ve now overcome a 19-point first half deficit without using the three-point shot to defeat Drexel; they’ve stolen a road win in a hostile environment against Michigan; and they’ve adapted to a variety of defenses when they knocked off Utah. Different strokes each time, but the one constant has been Johnson — he’s always been on when his teammates needed him to make plays.
It isn’t tournament season just yet, but right now the Wildcats seem like their thinking is just survive and advance.