Arizona Wildcats coach Sean Miller admits he wants to send a message to the college basketball world. He’s repeated a particular story several times in the past few weeks. Nick Johnson keeps giving him reason to do so.
Johnson scored a game-high 22 points Sunday night — pouring in eight during the key second-half run — as he helped will the top-ranked Wildcats to shake off a pesky Utah team, 65-56 at McKale Center.
Just the latest evidence that Johnson is turning into Miles Simon before our eyes, propping Arizona on his shoulders as the guy who can find a way — any way — to make a basket when the team absolutely has to have it.
And Miller gets one more chance to say, “I told you so.”
“I’m going to say the same thing,” he began in his postgame press conference. “In the spring, I tried to get him invited to a number of things that elite college players get invited to, and they gave me not even a phone call back.”
“Nick Johnson is playing as well as any guard in the country. It’s simple. He’s done it in the biggest moments. He’s terrific. And, by the way, I’m not even talking about offense. I’m talking about leadership, playing more than one position, defending the other team’s best perimeter player.
“He’s a heck of a player right now for us.”
Things were looking shaky for the 20-0 Wildcats about halfway through the second half. The Utes, often confounding Arizona with their multiple changing defenses, led 49-47 with 11:04 to go.
Arizona then went on a 14-2 run over the next eight minutes in which Johnson drove to the rim for a layup, hit a running hook shot off the glass, soared along the baseline for a two-handed jam and hit a Simon-esque floater in the lane.
Did anyone even know he had that hook shot in his repertoire?
The offensive creativity, the versatility, is why Johnson’s scoring average has ridden a rocket from 11.5 points per game last season to 16.7 this season. And, by the way, that’s without a bump in his 31 minutes per game.
“He’s developed,” Miller said.
“He’s worked hard on his floater. I personally watched him shoot thousands of floaters in the spring and summer. It’s what we worked with him on. Nick’s a smart kid. He knew he needed to continue to develop different ways of scoring.
“If he had made his free throws tonight, he might have played the best game that he ever played at Arizona.”
Johnson was 3 of 5 from the line, including missing the front end of a one-and-one in the final minute. Seems forgivable, given the new ways in which he is leading on offense.
The floater, he said, adds “another dimension.”
“This summer I worked on my floater a lot and I’ve been using that a lot this year,” Johnson said. “That’s just one of many things.
“But with the team that we have this year … we have people who can score the ball from all over the court, so it makes it a little bit easier.”
Johnson scored 40 points in the team’s two home victories this week, which allowed the Wildcats to set the modern school record with 20 consecutive victories.
Arizona is built on balance, but Johnson has scored more than 20 points in three of the past six games.
“He’s a big-time player and a great kid,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.
“He’s the guy they go to, and he stepped up to the plate and made some big plays. We didn’t have an answer for him. Whether he’s dunking the ball or shooting the ball, he’s a hard guard.”
Johnson, not exactly a pure 3-point shooter, is hitting 37.1 percent from behind the arc. Sometimes the outside shot doesn’t fall. It happens. Now, though, he’s able to compensate with a mid-range game or by using his athleticism, and toughness, to get to the rim.
On one drive Sunday night, he looked like Ka’Deem Carey, tucking the ball in the crook of his right arm, putting his head down, and pinballing his way through the lane.
He is one shot away from hitting 50 percent overall for the season, a significant benchmark for a guard. Johnson has made 114 of 227 shots.
“He’s efficient,” Miller said.
Said Johnson: “I never want to be the person to be the ‘jacker’ — the person on the team that everyone looks at kind of sideways. I guess that’s me as a person. It’s good I’m hitting shots, I guess.”
Johnson doesn’t have to say much, though.
His play — and his head coach — are doing plenty of talking for him.
Arizona has a lot of talented players, but NO question that Nick Johnson has been the best this season in Tucson. Top 10 nationally.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 27, 2014