As Arizona coach Sean Miller strode down the McKale Center corridor Friday afternoon heading to practice, he saw Washington redshirt senior guard C.J. Wilcox chatting with a reporter.
Miller stopped and extended a hand to the longtime Husky guard and congratulated him on a win over Arizona State on Thursday night.
Wilcox has earned that kind of respect around the Pac-12.
And it hasn’t come overnight.
Wilcox has become one of the conference’s top scorers, averaging 20.2 points per game to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists in this, his fifth year with the program.
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar saw this in Wilcox from the start.
“When we first recruited him, we saw how easy it was for him to let the ball go; his stroke was feathery, nice,” Romar said. “And he was athletic along with it. Those are things we expected him to do, and he showed signs early.”
Year 1 (Year 2, really, given the redshirt), Wilcox was a pleasant surprise, averaging 8.1 points per game, including 24 in a home win over UCLA that he still remembers.
He boosted his game as a sophomore, upping his scoring average to 14.2, and again as a junior, increasing to 16.8 points per game.
But that was only a glimpse at what he could do.
As a sophomore, Wilcox was limited by a stress fracture in his left femur that kept him out of practice from most of January and on. Last season, it was a stress facture in his left foot that kept him from refining his game.
Now he’s healthy and happy and mature, and it has shown in his game.
“Maturity and health,” Romar said, when asked for the reasons for Wilcox’s improved stat line. “Before, he was able to play, healthy enough to play, but he couldn’t practice. When you can’t practice, you become rusty. That happened to him the last two years.”
And it’s the primary reason Wilcox returned for his senior year, to showcase his ability for scouts at the next level and to cement his legacy as a Husky great.
He had much to prove after last season, when the foot injury toyed with his conditioning and confidence as his shooting percentage slipped to below 42 percent.
“I decided to play through it, and that was tough to do,” Wilcox said. “We tried to keep it behind the scenes so NBA people wouldn’t think something was wrong. It was tough having people not know and assuming I was playing badly just because.”
No matter the reason for his return, the Huskies were ecstatic to welcome him back into the fold, where his scoring is just a slice of what makes him special.
“C.J. has been a great leader for us from Day 1,” Washington freshman Nigel Williams-Goss said. “Being a fifth-year senior, it’s big to get someone like that, with experience, who’s been played in these types of games. That poise, he keeps us at ease at times.”
That’s to be expected out of a senior leader — poise under pressure, improved shot selection, headiness — and Wilcox hasn’t disappointed.
On Thursday, his dunk with 11 minutes 22 seconds left in the first half gave Washington its second lead over Arizona State, but this one spurred a 22-5 run to close out the half in the eventual 11-point win.
“He’s been in college a while now, he understands a lot more,” Romar said. “There was a time when you got better after four years, and it was OK. That’s what he’s done, and there have been others in our program — Brandon Roy, Quincy Pondexter — who were here four years and got better.
“Here at Arizona, a guy like Solomon Hill was here for four years and became a fantastic basketball player.
“He’s not around here, is he? I’m glad he’s gone.”
Odds are, opposing coaches will be saying the same thing about Wilcox this time next year, even if they’ll miss the handshakes.