Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson left a big void went he left for the NBA. Photo by Wildcat Universe

The Arizona Wildcats went into last week as a struggling team with rotation concerns. The Cats came out invigorated, reestablished as the team to beat in the Pac-12.

It took a while – 18 games’ worth of while – but the Wildcats may have finally figured out how to replace Nick Johnson.

Something was missing in the first half of the season. The UA never dropped out of the top 10 but there were slow starts, ugly wins and the bad losses to UNLV and Oregon State.

Nick Johnson was just one player but his importance may have been underestimated. From building chemistry before the first practice to the final shot of the season, Johnson was The Guy on last year’s 33-win team. He was the leading scorer and the ace perimeter defender. He could make game-saving blocks or ice games at the free throw line.

This year’s team doesn’t have one player who can do all that. If the Utah game is any indication, however, the Wildcats may have figured out how to divvy up the responsibilities.

The leadership role belongs to T.J. McConnell. Like a tough big brother, the senior point guard shows his appreciation with a two-handed shove to your chest. He treats every loose ball like a challenge to his manhood and celebrates a good pass more than a made jumper. The T.J. that attacked Utah (16 points, six assists) is the player anyone would follow.

Johnson’s mantle of lockdown defense has been passed to sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Rondae was the primary defender on Utah star Delon Wright on Saturday, limiting him to three points over the final 36 minutes. Hollis-Jefferson’s offensive game isn’t there yet so he shouldn’t feel the need to try and carry that burden.

The scoring punch has to come from another Johnson, as the best offensive player on this year’s team is a freshman. Stanley Johnson is the one Wildcat who creates mismatches. He has range out to the arc (40% shooting on 3s) and he’s a bulldozer in the paint. You can’t even foul him anymore because he’s knocking down free throws at an 81% clip since the start of conference play.

McConnell can’t be expected to shoot 8-of-10 from the floor every game like he did against the Utes; you can, however, look for Johnson to shoot 6-for-12 with 18 points, nine rebounds and a couple steals on a regular basis. Add in the Colorado game and he averaged 20 points, 8.5 boards, two assists and two steals over the two contests. This is the man who has to close out games for Arizona in 2015.

That may have been a tough realization. Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and McConnell have practiced and played together for three seasons now. Hollis-Jefferson was a “sixth starter” last year. I’m sure some of them expected to inherit Nick Johnson’s Superman costume.

Sometimes being “all-in” means letting the new guy wear the cape.

Secondary (and tertiary) scoring will obviously be needed and that’s where Ashley and Tarczewski come in. The pair combined for exactly 21 points in each of the two wins. Both big men have the ability to make shots from outside the lane but need to resist the temptation to settle for jumpers.

The beauty of the Utah game was the Wildcats built a 20-point lead while hitting just one 3-point shot. Instead of the pass-pass-pass-miss-from-deep offense at the end of the OSU game, Arizona made 17 of its 26 field goals in the lane. That mindset has to continue even when facing a zone.

The other key departure from last year’s team was Aaron Gordon. Granted, nobody on this squad is pulling down lobs from the rafters or meeting would-be dunkers at the summit, but Gordon’s rebounding did need to be replaced and that’s everyone’s job.

All four starters average over four boards a game but there can’t be games like last week when two Beaver guards matched the rebounding output of the Cats’ entire starting lineup. Against Utah, four guys had at least seven rebounds. That’s the level of desire needed on the glass every night.

Who is The Guy on this team? There isn’t one. T.J. has to be Leader Guy, Rondae is Defensive Guy, Stan is scoring guy and everybody has to view himself as Rebounding Guy.

The question this week is whether or not this renewed intensity will travel. Arizona’s reward for winning the battle for first place on Saturday is another battle for first place at 4-1 Stanford on Thursday.

There’s still a long, tough road ahead to defend the Pac-12 championship. But it looks likes strides have been made to replace the contributions of last year’s Pac-12 Player of the Year.

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