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Saturday, August 23, 2014 | Last updated: 6:24am

Arizona basketball's Johnson still getting his head back into the game



Before the ball tipped off against Washington State two weekends ago, UA guard Nick Johnson had already lost his lunch. The sophomore was dealing with a stomach virus that threatened to keep him out of the game.

With depth issues in the backcourt from an ejection, that wasn’t an option.

Johnson toughed it out, and despite throwing up a little more during halftime, he finished the game with 31 minutes and five assists. He also had a then-season-low six points. He only scored two points against Stanford last Thursday.

Johnson said he was back to normal at Tuesday’s weekly press conference. Even with the improved health, though, his scoring touch has yet to recover from the bug that bit him in Washington.

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Johnson is averaging 5.0 points over the last three games, well under his previous season average (13.4 ppg) before the ailment. He’s also shot a lackluster 27.8 percent, another big dip from earlier in the year.

“We need him to score,” head coach Sean Miller said. “We want him to be a double-figure scorer. What makes Nick so valuable to our team is the fact that he can do so many things.”

To Johnson’s credit, he kept other aspects of his game near their usual level even as he battled the illness. He’s been the Wildcats’ best passer over the last three games, with 13 assists to one turnover. His quick hands haven’t left, either. The Pac-12’s third-best thief still averaged 1.0 steals per game.

Staying true to that versatility, and especially his defense, is how Johnson plans to get out of the scoring funk.

“I mean, just keep on playing, play my game, honestly,” he said. “Play hard on defense, and everything else will come.”

Johnson said he never tries to save energy. He’s continued to play with his patented intensity and high energy and he hopes a steal or defensive play can help get him back on track, as it has during games.

But that wasn’t the case in Arizona’s 77-69 loss to Cal on Sunday, as the normally strong defender struggled with his usual bread and butter.

Johnson was designated as the defensive stopper when the season began, and for the most part he’s been just that. He held Washington’s C.J. Wilcox (17.7 ppg) to 11 points on 4-of-16 shooting. Stanford’s hot-shooting Chasson Randle (who averaged more than 15 points in his eight prior games) scored 11 points on 3-for-11 from the field.

Against the Golden Bears, though, junior guard Allen Crabbe netted 31 points on 80.0 shooting (12-for-15) and looked unstoppable at times as Cal pulled the big upset at the McKale Center.

“Nick has done an outstanding job all season as our go-to defender,” Miller said after the Cal game. “He ran into a player [Sunday] who made some really tough shots.”

At 6-foot-3, Johnson stands noticeably shorter than Crabbe, who is 6-foot-6, and it showed in the matchup. Crabbe was able to get his shot over Johnson and, more often than not, into the basket, even if the Arizona guard contested it well.

After the game, seniors Kevin Parrom and Solomon Hill said they should have switched over and used their bigger size to try and shut down Crabbe. Because of defensive switches, Johnson wasn’t always guarding him either. But when he did, the defensive stopper was rendered pretty much useless.

“[Johnson] tried his best,” Parrom said after the game. “He gave a lot of effort, which is something he always does.”

With Colorado’s Askia Booker and his unlimited range on deck Thursday night when Arizona plays at CU, Johnson will again be called upon to guard a talented scorer.

Johnson’s lack of scoring production has hurt Arizona, but not killed it. If he can’t contain Booker and allows him to improve upon the 18 points he scored in the last meeting, it might be a long night for the Wildcats in Boulder.


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