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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Nick Johnson leads Arizona past UCLA with his scoring, defense and poise under pressure

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Nick Johnson (USATSI)

LOS ANGELES — On a critical Arizona possession with just over two minutes to go, he missed a wide-open 3-pointer. On UCLA's ensuing fast break, he was a step slow to close out on a trailing Jordan Adams from behind the arc.

Nick Johnson had every reason to be frustrated with Arizona's 13-point lead gone, Pauley Pavilion roaring and the nation's No. 1 team in jeopardy of its first loss, but the junior guard preached just the opposite to his young teammates walking back to the bench Thursday night.

"I just told them to calm down and not lose their composure," Johnson said. "As a veteran, I can't get all riled up and disturbed when another team makes its run because my teammates will feed off that negativity. I know I have a young team out there. ... I'm conscious of that."

Johnson's poise under pressure was just one of the ways he helped Arizona escape Pauley Pavilion with a 79-75 road win and its unbeaten record intact. He scored a game-high 22 points, limited the high-scoring Adams to 4 of 15 from the floor and sank a floater with 1:26 remaining that gave the Wildcats a lead they never relinquished.

A brilliant all-around game from Johnson on a national stage gave Arizona coach Sean Miller a platform to argue that his leading scorer deserves more recognition. Asked why the best player on the nation's top-ranked team is seldom mentioned as a national player of the year candidate or All-American hopeful, Miller acknowledged he too is surprised.

"Nick has really become a great player," Miller said. "The value he adds to our team, I would put it up against any guard in the country. He plays three positions, he defends the other team's best player and at the end of the game, he makes free throws and clutch plays. He has grown and matured and it has been fun to see."

Part of the reason Johnson gets overlooked nationally is that he isn't even the most discussed player on his own team. With heralded freshman Aaron Gordon making an impact in his debut season, transfer T.J. McConnell providing the point guard play the team has previously lacked and Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley blossoming into effective big men, it's easy to forget Johnson's development is still the biggest reason Arizona is 16-0 for the first time since 1932.

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Nick Johnson (Getty Images)

A defensive specialist prone to erratic outside shooting and lengthy scoring slumps early in his Arizona career, Johnson has transformed himself into an efficient go-to scorer as a junior. The 6-foot-3 wing is averaging 16.0 points per game, shooting 48.1 percent from the field and hitting 82.3 percent of his free throws, all while also serving as the Wildcats' backup point guard and guarding the opponent's best perimeter scorer.

Where Johnson's impact is also obvious is in his leadership off the floor.

He often begins studying for opponents weeks in advance so he knows the tendencies of every player on the floor. He's always the first to volunteer to host prospective recruits on their official visits. And in an effort to improve Arizona's team chemistry, Johnson arranged to lease a house this school year that houses him and six of his teammates.

"Nick has grown in every aspect since I've been here," McConnell said. "In every aspect of his game, he has improved. He has become a big-time scorer this year and he has always been a big-time defender. He just does everything for our team. That's why we're so successful is because of him."

Testimonials like that one from McConnell suggest Miller may be right that Johnson merits more accolades. He's not a pure scorer like Doug McDermott, a physical specimen like Julius Randle or a surefire lottery pick like Jabari Parker, but not many players contribute to their team in more areas than Johnson.

About the only member of the Arizona program with no interest in seeing Johnson receive more recognition is the junior guard himself.

Given the chance to make a case for himself as a player of the year candidate, Johnson insisted team success was far more important to him.

Said Johnson, "If my team does what it needs to do, everything I want to happen will happen."

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