Nick Johnson is back, and so may be Arizona
LAS VEGAS -- This emphatic block came after the buzzer, after Nick Johnson had drop-stepped and shot-swatted his Arizona Wildcats past Colorado in the final minute of a well-fought Pac-12 quarterfinal. But as Buffaloes guard Askia Booker tried to drive for one last consolation bucket, a final taste of success even as the red light illuminating the backboard informed him that Colorado's tournament run was over, Johnson soared and emphatically packed the attempt off the glass before joining his celebrating teammates.
The block-that-didn't-count immediately fired up memories of Johnson's memorable game-saving swat on Christmas night against San Diego State, when the unbeaten Wildcats had their mojo working. It was a crisp reminder of the type of athlete Johnson is and the type of impact player the sophomore can be. Johnson's play in the first half of the season was a big part of the Wildcats' push toward the nation's elite, and his fade down the stretch is (among other things) part of why the Cats have looked so much more vulnerable.
If the dynamic Johnson is back, and this game along with the finale against Arizona State strongly suggest he is, then Arizona is going to be a more difficult proposition the rest of the way.
"There are times when he's almost like a point guard out there on offense. He's certainly a defender that has immense talent, and he's a capable scorer and shooter," Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. "When he brings all those characteristics to the table, that's when we're at our best for sure."
Johnson had suffered through a lengthy dip in form during league play, but started to emerge against UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. Miller credits Arizona having a full week of practice after that game for Johnson having time to get his confidence and rhythm back, and he's been really good against Arizona State and now Colorado, where his scoring may have been secondary to his defensive efforts, primarily against standout Colorado point guard Spencer Dinwiddie.
Dinwiddie finished the game with 18 points, including 9-of-10 from the line after a strong final 15 minutes, but the lead Arizona compiled earlier in the game never fully disappeared. In the postgame presser, Dinwiddie was clearly bothered by suggestions that Johnson had limited him to an extent, but outside the Buffaloes locker room, head coach Tad Boyle conceded that Johnson's defense had impacted his team, saying that Johnson had "locked [Dinwiddie] up" for a large segment of the contest.
"From the first two times we played them, Nick Johnson was the difference tonight," Boyle said.
Johnson himself understands that he is the X-factor in the Wildcats' upside projection for the next few weeks. Solomon Hill has emerged as one of the league's most impactful players and Mark Lyons puts his imprint on games as well, but Johnson's varied skills on both ends of the floor make this team significantly harder to handle. Johnson said that in the games Arizona lost this season, it probably was a game where he didn't bring consistent enough effort on the defensive end, but they also missed his scoring. In the Wildcats' last four losses of the season, Johnson scored a total of 30 points.
He matched Dinwiddie's 18 tonight on just seven shots, including the back-down of Askia Booker in the lane that gave the Wildcats a two-possession lead in the final minute, but his signature moments were at the other end. He punctuated his command of the Buffaloes' backcourt by swatting a Booker three out of bounds as Colorado attempted a final rally, and then finished off his night with the one after the horn. With that one came a message of intent that could scare future Arizona foes the rest of the way. "No easy buckets. It's something our team is trying to embrace," Johnson said. "You don't want to give them any layups. Doesn't matter what it is, one second left or anything like that, regardless of score. So [we're] just trying to finish what we started."