If you only had one game to see how the Arizona Wildcats are off to record-setting 18-0 start, Thursday’s game would be a pretty good choice.
In a 91-68 win over Arizona State at McKale Center, the No. 1 Wildcats smothered the Sun Devils defensively, even initially doing so with dynamic ASU guard Jahii Carson, and gave new meaning to the word “share” on offense.
All seven of the Wildcats’ regular rotation players scored in double figures for the first time this season, while leading scorer Nick Johnson became the 48th player in Arizona history to reach the 1,000-point mark when he scored 17 to lead the Wildcats.
“No question, it’s hard to have seven guys in double figures,” UA coach Sean Miller said.
Miller went on to note how much better UA is when forward Brandon Ashley is assertive, as he was in the second half while scoring eight of his 10 points, but it was also true that all seven of the Wildcats had their moments of assertiveness.
That included Gabe York, who was the last to reach 10 points when he hit a three-pointer with 2:04 left. York was 3 for 5 from three-point range, hitting his last shot as Miller began to substitute heavily.
“We’re unselfish and we can score at any position,” guard T.J. McConnell said.
They can also defend any position. UA (18-0, 5-0 Pac-12) not only slowed down Carson in the first half, with a tag-team defensive effort that included efforts from McConnell, Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but also kept ASU center Jordan Bachynski from making a single field goal.
Bachynski was 0 for 3 from the field, though he managed six rebounds, three blocks and two steals. The 7-foot-2 Canadian finished with three points after entering the game with an average of 12.7.
“They’re just a really good team with great size,” Bachynski said.
Bachynski’s struggles were evidence to Miller that UA center Kaleb Tarczewski has become a “great low post defender,” but he also praised Tarczewski’s ability to stop Carson off of ball screens.
Then again, just about everybody played a part in making Carson work exceptionally hard for his game-high 20 points. Carson missed his first six shots and was just 2 for 10 at halftime, though he managed to reach 20 by taking 19 field goals and seven free throws.
“T.J. did a good job of just making all his shots tough,” Johnson said. “Seven for 19 that’s a pretty effective defensive performance, and some by myself. It was just making his job hard and when he comes off ball screens, it was just the big fella (Tarczewski) staying with him. We really stressed that.”
The Wildcats also strived to limit Carson in transition, where he is especially dangerous.
“He’s at his best in transition and that’s where our defense had to start,” Miller said. “You’ve gotta build walls around him. With few exceptions we did that.”
Along the way, Carson was rejected for blocks not only by old friend Johnson but also by McConnell, who won’t forget that block anytime soon.
“I get a block about every 40 games,” McConnell said. “So I’d say it’s up there.”
Because of Arizona’s defense, which held ASU (13-5, 2-3) to just 23.1 percent shooting in the first half, the game was really never in doubt after the first 10 minutes.
In fact, by the time Johnson scored his eighth point to hit the 1,000-point mark, with 7:14 left in the half, the Wildcats already had a 31-12 lead.
Johnson finished with a typical fill-the-box-score effort, with two assists, two rebounds and two blocks to go with 6-for-9 shooting.
Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson each had eight rebounds, with Tarczewski adding 12 points and two blocks.
Arizona had jumped all over the Sun Devils early, going on an 18-3 run in the first half and taking a 42-28 lead at halftime.
The Wildcats then took leads of up to 24 points in the second half to put the game away in front of a capacity “red-out” game in the intrastate rivalry.
The only drama was how many players would score in double figures, with the previous high of six being set against Fairleigh Dickinson, and how many would get into the game.
Miller eventually played 15 of his 16 players.
Freshman forward Zach Peters played for the first time since Dec. 3 and Johnson’s brother, walk-on Chris Johnson, played for the first time all season since he was ineligible for the fall semester as a transfer from Cal State-San Bernardino.