Arizona Wildcats basketball: When Nick Johnson is on, so are the Wildcats
LAS VEGAS — The Arizona Wildcats need Nick Johnson to produce.
When he doesn’t they lose, and the proof is in the pudding.
In a seven-game stretch from Feb. 10 to March 2, Arizona lost four games. Johnson scored 7.7 points per game in that span, well below his season average 11.8 points.
“Like any young player,” head coach Sean Miller said, “he went through a stretch where he lacked confidence.
“But, he’s back now.”
As he’s back, so is Arizona. And he showed that on Thursday in a 79-69 win against Colorado at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Johnson was scoring — he led the UA with 18 points — and he was smart with the ball, but most importantly he made an impact defensively.
You can point to his steals, or holding Spencer Dinwiddie — Colorado’s leading scorer — to 4-of-12 shooting.
But, it was a block of Askia Booker late in the game that really kept the Buffaloes from mounting a comeback.
With 18 seconds left and Colorado trailing by six points, Booker attempted a 3-pointer from the corner that Johnson emphatically swatted into the stands.
Then on the inbound Colorado bounced the ball of Solomon Hill’s leg and back out of bounds, before Booker missed another three to finish things off for the Buffs.
“There’s no question that his talent and effort level on defense alone made the game harder for their guards,” Miller said.
It’s a far cry from the Johnson of a year ago.
In the last Pac-12 tournament at Staples Center, in front of near-empty crowds, Johnson scored a combined 19 points in three games. In the championship game loss to Colorado, he had five points on 2-of-10 shooting with zero assists and two turnovers.
He’s developed from a supporting piece to maybe the Wildcats best player and, at the very least, its bailout package.
“I’m trying to be aggressive,” Johnson said. “I’m one year older. I’ve played in many more games and I’m just trying to be more aggressive for my team. I think when I’m impressive, our team really flows.”
Added Miller: “He’s just gotten better. He’s developed and everything about him is better this year than it was a year ago.”
Guard play, especially in March, is key. And with Mark Lyons struggling, Johnson has stepped up to the plate.
In Arizona’s last two games (both wins) Lyons sho t6-of-23 (26 percent) overall, 4-of-15 from three (27 percent) with 11 points per game, 1.5 assists and 2.5 turnovers.
Johnson, on the other hand, shot 12-of-18 (67 percent) overall, 4-of-9 from three (44.4 percent) with 17.5 points, 3.0 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 turnovers per contest.
“He’s an immense talent,” Miller said. “And a capable shooter and scorer. When he brings all of those characteristics, that’s when we’re at our best, for sure.”
If Arizona is to avenge its two losses to UCLA at 6 p.m. Friday, it will need Johnson at his best, for sure.
— _Zack Rosenblatt is a journalism senior. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @ZackBlatt. _