To build the camaraderie needed to win together, Arizona first had to live together
Shortly after he began searching for a house to rent in Tucson for the 2013-14 school year, Arizona guard Nick Johnson became worried he wouldn't find what he wanted.
Johnson envisioned a house spacious enough for him and most of his teammates because he believed living together would help the Wildcats build the chemistry they lacked the previous year, but the few seven- or eight-bedroom houses on the market were each too expensive.
Just as Johnson was ready to scrap his idea, his girlfriend urged him to check out a duplex someone she knew was building less than a mile from campus. Johnson and Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski were ready to sign a lease on the spot after their tour revealed two generously sized yet reasonably priced four-bedroom, five-bathroom houses separated only by a courtyard. There was even a Wildcats logo painted on the floor in the living rooms of both houses.
"Kaleb and I immediately knew it was perfect," Johnson said. "We picked out our bedrooms right away. It's hard to find a house in Tucson that can fit seven or eight guys, but that's really what we wanted to do. We had it in our minds from the start. If it didn't work out, we'd have broken up into groups of two or three, but I'm thankful we found what we wanted."
Empty pizza boxes or takeout containers sometimes clutter the living room and dirty dishes often pile up in the sink, but Arizona players have happily bonded amid the occasional mess. In fact the Wildcats cite the cohesiveness forged by living together as one of the unsung secrets to their 18-0 start and ascension to the No. 1 spot in both polls.
Seven Arizona players call the duplex home, with Johnson, Tarczewski, starting point guard T.J. McConnell and reserve guard Chris Johnson in one house and starting forward Brandon Ashley and reserves Gabe York and Zach Peters in the other. Freshmen Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Elliott Pitts are required to live on campus, but they spend as much time watching movies and NFL games or playing Xbox at the duplex as they do hanging out in their own dorm rooms.
"Chemistry on the court comes from chemistry off the court, so living together has definitely helped," Tarczewski said. "We had a great team last season and did some special things, but the chemistry this year is on a different level. Last year, the older guys hung out by themselves a lot. There were a few groups of guys that would always be together. This year, everyone's always together. We look at each other as a family. When everyone gets along so well, it helps the team out so much."
Selling his teammates on the idea of living together was easy for Johnson because they all wanted to prevent cliques from forming the way they did the previous season. Though Arizona won 27 games, finished tied for second in the Pac-12 and reached the Sweet 16, the talent-rich Wildcats headed into the offseason wondering if they could have accomplished more had they been more close-knit.
It wasn't as though members of last year's team hated one-another or constantly bickered. It was more that the oldest and youngest players on the team rarely hung out together off the floor and didn't always seamlessly mesh on it.
Arizona's 2012-13 team featured a four-man freshman class considered one of the best in the nation and three senior standouts trying to prove their worth to professional scouts. Seniors Solomon Hill, Kevin Parrom and Mark Lyons led by example rather than nurturing the freshmen and often made it clear they weren't ready to cede control of the team to the newcomers just yet.
"Last year it was a house divided," Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson said. "Not necessarily in a bad way, but you had three seniors playing for their proverbial basketball lives and four freshmen feeling their way around. Everyone was trying to figure out, 'How's this going to work?' The older guys wanted to prove to the younger guys, there's a pecking order. The older guys wanted to lead by example and say follow my lead.
"This year, you had two McDonald's All-Americans and Elliott Pitts coming in, and Nick has welcomed them with open arms. Instead of just leading by example, he has pulled them under his wing and said guys, this is how it goes."
One of Johnson's inspirations for trying to do what he could to bring the Arizona locker room together this season was Louisville's run to the national championship last spring. Johnson was struck by the Cardinals' tearful reaction to Kevin Ware's gruesome broken leg and to their vow to win the title in his honor eight days later.
"Their togetherness ultimately propelled them to a national championship," Johnson said. "That brotherhood you saw when some of the players and coaches cried, that's what we needed."
That closeness Arizona has achieved this season has arisen from anything from afternoon barbecues, to heated late-night games of NBA 2K14, to evenings when the entire team will stay in and watch a movie or order a UFC fight.
The house chef? "Kaleb and Chris," Johnson said without hesitation. "They're always watching the cooking channel."
The messiest roommate? "I'd have to say T.J.," Tarczewski answered quickly. "We always assign T.J. cleaning jobs because otherwise he doesn't really do it."
The Xbox champion? "I would say Brandon is the best at it," Johnson said. "The rest of the guys might get mad at me for saying that."
And the biggest prankster? "I guess it's Nick," Chris Johnson said after a pause. "He's taken all the toilet paper out of my bathroom before and put it into his room to mess with me."
The camaraderie built by spending so much time together has helped the Wildcats win several games they might otherwise have lost this season.
Nick Johnson pointed to the Drexel game in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals when Arizona fell behind by 19 points in the first half before staging a huge rally to pull out a 66-62 victory. Tarczewski also mentioned the Wildcats' poise down the stretch at UCLA after blowing a 13-point lead in the final minutes.
"On any other team, that's a breaking point right there," Tarczewski said. "Toward the end of the game when a team goes on a run, it's easy to be overwhelmed, especially on the road. We never felt nervous or pointed fingers on the court. We knew exactly what we needed to do to get ourselves out of the situation. It really does show how close we are."
Of course, living together isn't the only reason Arizona's team chemistry is so strong. There's no reason for bickering when the Wildcats have an unbeaten record, an unselfish pass-first point guard and a short rotation in which all the key players know their roles.
Still, to a man, Arizona players insist spending more time together away from basketball has translated into better communication on the floor. Johnson is even hopeful the duplex could become known as the Arizona basketball house in the future if returning players decide to keep renting it each year.
Why not? If this charmed season at Arizona has proven anything so far, it's that the team that lives together, wins together.