No. 1 Arizona wraps up non-conference with convincing victory
No. 1 Arizona men’s basketball completed a perfect non-conference schedule for the second year in a row with a 77-44 win over NAU at home; however, it will try to avoid a fate similar to last year.
The Wildcats (13-0) have won 27 regular season non-conference games in a row. The UA started last season with a 14-game winning streak before losing six conference games and then getting eliminated in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament semi-finals.
“We’re good, but we can get a lot better,” junior guard Nick Johnson said. “Right now, we’re a top‐10 defensive team, which was our goal coming into this year, but I think as a team we know we can be a lot better … We can be the number one defensive team in the country if everybody focuses in on being that.”
Arizona was No. 7 in the country in scoring defense going into Monday night’s game.
“One of the things we just talked about is that last year we were 12‐0 and we then went 12‐6 for the next 18 games — that’s pretty good by the way,” head coach Sean Miller said. “We missed the regular season championship by a game. This year’s team, our goal is to compete for the conference championship.”
Miller said that last year the Wildcats lost their defense after the Christmas break, and became more focused on themselves as individuals. He promised it wouldn’t happen again and players who lose their defensive intensity will be benched.
“If it happens, it will be addressed right away,” Miller said. “Our defense has to remain one of the best in college basketball, that is not easy.”
Miller said that last year after playing on Christmas Day that “it didn’t feel like” they had a break. This year, the Wildcats will be off until Dec. 27.
“Last year we lost our identity as far as being a defensive team and maybe went a little south,” Johnson said. “So, we just have to keep that going into conference.”
Junior guard Nick Johnson led all scorers with 20 points, including three three-pointers. This is the fourth game this season that Johnson has scored 20 or more points — his season high being the 23 points he scored against San Diego State on Nov. 14.
Miller said that Johnson was the Wildcats’ most valuable player during the non-conference season.
“He does it on both ends, he’s done it game in and game out,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t trade him for any player in the country.”
Freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, making his second start in a row, had 14 points and eight rebounds.
“Rondae’s almost been like a sixth starter,” Miller said. “He’s gotten better, he gives us so many things. He rebounds on both ends and is becoming better on defense.”
Sophomore center and usual starter Kaleb Tarczewski, who injured his ankle at Michigan, did not play for the second straight game.
Miller said it has been good for the team to play without Tarczewski’s rebounding and defense, but that he should be around 100 percent for Pac-12 play.
Sophomore guard Gabe York had 10 points and four assists, while sophomore forward Brandon Ashley had 11 points and nine rebounds.
NAU (3-8) didn’t have any players score in double figures.
Arizona outrebounded the Lumberjacks 31-30, but had 32 points in the paint compared to 16 for NAU. The Wildcats scored 23 points off of turnovers, while NAU had two.
In total the Wildcats had five turnovers and forced 18. But Miller pointed out that for the second straight game, Johnson didn’t have any turnovers.
Arizona shot 48.1 percent, while holding NAU to 36.4 percent.
As for being the No. 1 team in the nation, Miller said it hasn’t been a burden.
“We’ve really embraced the fact that we are the No. 1 team in the country. You can’t take it from us,” Miller said. “We earned it. We’ve now played 13 games, and we’re very proud. We’ve won 25 non‐conference games in a row. Right now we’re No. 1 in the country and 13‐0. That’s a source of pride and something nobody can take from us moving forward.”
UA begins conference play against Washington State (6-5) at home on Jan. 2 at 8 p.m. MST. The Cougars wrap up their non-league schedule with Mississippi Valley State at home on Dec. 28.
—Follow James Kelley @jameskelley520