Column: Arizona to bring home a national championship title this year
Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson contests San Diego State forward JJ O’Brien’s pass during Arizona’s 70-64 win against San Diego State in the NCAA Tournament on Mar. 27. Hollis-Jefferson averaged 9.1 points per game last season and figures to have a bigger role this season.
Defense wins championships. Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller knows this and has instituted a defensive identity around his program that puts the Wildcats firmly in the championship spotlight.
When one guy goes down, two more are ready and able to fill the void.
Miller packed the paint last season and saw his team’s defensive national rankings go through the roof. Arizona had the sixth best scoring defense in the nation at 58.6 points allowed per game, up from being ranked 99th in scoring defense two seasons ago.
This season, the Wildcats will be without arguably their two best defensive players from the previous year: Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon.
Both players departed early for the NBA and were huge aspects of why Arizona was within a bucket of a Final Four berth last season.
Johnson could lock down the vast majority of guards while Gordon was versatile enough to focus on guards, wings and even post players. From a defensive standpoint, their biggest assets to the team were quickness, leaping ability and defensive awareness.
Replacing those players will not be easy, but Miller has two viable options in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
In essence, the rich stay rich.
Johnson and RHJ have the ability to guard multiple positions and much of the same quickness possessed by Gordon and Johnson. In particular, Stanley Johnson should be an interesting replacement for Nick Johnson.
Nick Johnson was listed on the roster as 6-foot-3 but was likely closer to 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2; thus, he was undersized for the shooting guard position, which is the primary reason why he plays combo guard in the NBA now.
On the other hand, Stanley Johnson is listed as 6-foot-6 and may even be taller than that. As long as he plays balanced defense, that increase in length should drive opposing shooting guards crazy on both sides of the ball, but primarily on defense.
The issue with Stanley Johnson is whether or not he can stay in front of smaller shooting guards laterally. College basketball is much different from the NBA, where shooting guards are usually anywhere from 6-foot-5 to 6-foot-8. College shooting guards can be any number of heights and are likely anywhere from 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-7.
His defensive value will multiply significantly if he can stay in front of those smaller guards in his likely lone collegiate season.
Where Stanley Johnson has to make adjustments, RHJ perfects the super sub role, as we saw last season, and is already an accomplished collegiate defender.
Entering his second season at Arizona, RHJ should take over Aaron Gordon’s role from last season as Arizona’s defensive wing stopper. Miller has the freedom to put RHJ on troublesome small forwards or power forwards. Really, he’s a defensive jack of all trades.
When you combine those two with returners T.J. McConnell, Kaleb Tarczeswki and Brandon Ashley, that’s one heck of a defensive starting lineup.
If Arizona is to bring home the program’s second national championship this year, it will have to be behind a dominant defense.
Follow Roberto Payne @HouseofPayne555