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Arizona Wildcats’ non-conference MVP: Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson

This 360-degree dunk vs. East Tennessee State is one of the highlights of Arizona’s non-conference season. Photo by Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats basketball team is built on depth and balance.

UA doesn’t have anyone who can score like Sean Elliott, shoot like Steve Kerr, pass like Mike Bibby, play defense like Reggie Geary, block shots like Loren Woods or rebound like Pete Williams.

What it does have, among other things, are two remarkably versatile players in senior forward Solomon Hill and sophomore guard Nick Johnson. With the Pac-12 starting conference play Wednesday night, CBSSports.com’s college basketball insider Jeff Goodman picks Hill and Johnson as co-favorites for Player of the Year in the league.

Makes sense. Their scoring is identical; their stats similar.

They have been the best, most consistent, players on the third-ranked Wildcats, who are 12-0 and immediately jump into the deep end of conference play with a home game against Colorado on Thursday night.

Coach Sean Miller might lean toward Johnson in this debate, however.

“He might be our most important player when you consider what he’s done through 12 games,” Miller said Tuesday.

“His defensive effort on a daily basis and in games is incredible. He steals the ball and he guards the other team’s best player many times. From an offensive perspective, he plays like a point guard, even though he’s not.

“If you look at his shooting percentages and his points per game right now, he does a great job. He rebounds much better than you think. And he really has just a great feel for the game. He makes his teammates better.”

And it doesn’t hurt to have the athletic ability to trail San Diego State Chase Tapley down the lane, spring into the air and block his layup attempt from behind to preserve a 68-67 win at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu on Christmas Day.

“That last play, in a nutshell, really shows everything in Nick,” Miller said. “Great concentration. Great effort. Obviously, tremendous ability.”

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson saves the win over San Diego State with this blocked shot. Photo by Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Point guard Mark Lyons leads the Wildcats in scoring with 13.4 points per game. Johnson and Hill are next, tied at 12.7 points per game.

Pick which stat line you like best after that:

– Johnson: 3.5 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game, a team-high 28 steals, 49.5 percent shooting (17 of 43 three-point attempts, 39.5 percent).

– Hill: 5.0 rebounds per game, 3.1 assists per game, 18 steals, 42.1 percent shooting (17 of 47 three-point attempts, 36.2 percent).

Miller called the 6-4 Johnson the team’s most improved player from last season. Johnson averaged 8.9 points per game as a freshman, when he faded down the stretch, failing to reach double-digit points in any of the final seven games and shooting about 25 percent (12 of 49) in that stretch.

“I really credit these guys around me,” he said of this season.

“We have a lot more pieces than last year and it allows me to do some of the things that I’m naturally good at — as far as making plays and being able to roam a little bit. I credit them.”

Johnson, inheriting the defensive stopper role from departed Kyle Fogg, has been able to roam more on the perimeter because the Wildcats have more size in the lane behind him. An aggressive Johnson already has two more steals through 12 games than he did all of last season.

“I’m very, very happy with and proud of Nick’s performance through the entire non-conference,” Miller said. “I believe he can only grow and build from that performance.”

The Pac-12 season awaits.

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