About a year ago, PGU released this article about Nick Johnson stepping up his game as a sophomore. And here we are, just about 12 months later, and we’re still talking about how much Johnson has improved.
But this time we’re not talking about the improvement from a green freshman to a tested sophomore. Now the conversation is about how Johnson has gone from reliable vet to team leader, and seems to keep getting better every day.
Johnson is coming off a career night, as he posted a 20 point, 10 rebound, 6 assist performance against Rhode Island.
“Anytime a guard has 10 rebounds that’s an extraordinary effort,” Sean Miller said. “This may have been the best game Nick Johnson has had at Arizona.”
Johnson was everywhere for the Cats, scoring key buckets, finding open teammates, and making an impact with rebounding.
“I just try to go out there and play,” Johnson said. “I just made it a point today to go to the glass. If I get a rebound that kills one pass that we have to make to one of our guards so we can get out on the break, so we’re trying to do that more.”
Getting out on the break is something Johnson says he and backcourt mate TJ McConnell want to be able to do.
“We worked on that a lot in practice. Myself and TJ conditioned ourselves to be able to pick up full court on defense. We’re trying to be the best defensive team that we can be,” Johnson said.
It’s that commitment to defense that has always defined Johnson’s approach to and impact on the game. But now as a junior, his offensive game is starting to flow and he’s putting up efficient lines across the box score.
Averaging five more points per game than last year in four minutes less playing time, Johnson has improved his game in other areas as well. Known for his athleticism, Johnson is blocking 1.2 shots per game from the shooting guard position, among the highest totals in the country for a guard.
He’s also taking 10.2 field goal attempts per game, up from 8.7 last year. And he’s making the most of his extra opportunities, converting at a blistering 58.8% shooting.
A lot of his baskets have come close to the rim, and Johnson noted that the transition game was a big part of the team’s success.
“On offense we try to do the same thing, just get out in transition. That’s tough but when we’re getting out in transition, that’s when we’re at our best,” he said.
Five games into his junior year, Johnson has emerged as the team leader. Freshman Aaron Gordon is a freak of nature, and McConnell is the engine behind the offense, but Johnson is really the heart and soul of the team.
And heart is exactly what Arizona will need if they want to return home from Madison Square Garden with a title. A game with Drexel on Thursday is an appetizer for a potential showdown with top 10 Duke, a game the nation’s spotlight will be fixed upon. Arizona will have to take care of business against Drexel if they want a shot at the Blue Devils.
For Miller, taking a young group of players to New York to play in Madison Square Garden is a big opportunity.
“This is one of the most prestigious tournaments that college basketball has,” Miller said of the Preseason NIT. “To play in Madison Square Garden is something that our players will remember forever. Drexel is very good, it’s going to be very difficult on Wednesday but it’s exciting to prepare for.”
Johnson echoed the excitement that Miller alluded to, but remained focused on the task at hand.
“Who wouldn’t want to play in Madison Square Garden? It’s the biggest stage in basketball, period. We just tried to take it one game at a time and advance and we did that,” Johnson said after the last game. “I heard Drexel won, so we have to prepare for them and go out and play our game.”
It will be a big week for Arizona hoops. If the Wildcats take down Duke on national television, the country will have to start mentioning Arizona among college basketball’s championship contenders.