When Josiah Turner's brief Arizona career flamed out last spring, the Wildcats were left without a starting point guard at a time of year when it's hard to find a new one.
Yet now they essentially have two.
Together, senior Mark Lyons and sophomore Nick Johnson have helped the Wildcats to a 9-0 record and a No. 4 AP ranking heading into the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu this weekend.
Both made something of a surprise arrival this season. Lyons opted to transfer from Xavier in May, leaping at the chance to play point guard under the coach who recruited him from high school, Sean Miller.
Johnson re-emerged as a much improved, more well-rounded sophomore after a freshman season in which he was perhaps best known for making TV highlights with high-flying dunks.
And, while Lyons is still the primary point guard, the two have developed a bond on and off the court that allows them to share the role as needed.
"We each can be the one or the two and that's a good thing," Lyons said recently. "It's good having a lot of guys play the same position. In practice, you have a lot of guys going after each other, and that's what's going to make us better."
Behind Lyons and Johnson, there's an experienced junior in Jordin Mayes, as well as a developing freshmen combo guard in Gabe York. UA also has a pair of forwards with strong ball-handling abilities, Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom, with Parrom especially effective against the zone.
So it's not just one guy. Here's how Lyons and Johnson have helped lead the way so far in the backcourt:
His role: As the Wildcats' primary point guard, Lyons received some early scrutiny for what was a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, but he has posted nearly a 2-to-1 ratio (13-7) over his past three games.
Johnson said Lyons likes to catch it on the wing and create from there, often going to the basket or kicking the ball back outside. But he also knows when it's time to share distribution duties.
"It just really flows," Johnson said. "We're getting more comfortable every single game that we play together. We're in the game a lot of the time together. He pretty much knows when I'm going to attack. … So it's just learning that and getting the ball where people like it. It just comes with game experience."
His extra touch: Lyons has shown a knack for hitting shots when the Wildcats need them . most, and for bringing a flair and toughness that Miller loves to see. Among other performances, Lyons had 12 first-half points to keep the Wildcats away from early trouble at Texas Tech, and he had 14 points including a game-winning layup against Florida on Saturday.
"He has a huge heart, and I would rather have a guard and a player on our team with that type of confidence and heart," Miller said. "One of the things he's really good at is when the going gets tough, he rises up. … He brings that ingredient, and it's fun to play with a guy who believes he can win and believes in himself. His confidence can be contagious."
He said it: "I just want to adapt. I came here to a new system, new team and everything. But we've been winning games. I feel I've been shooting the ball really well. … I've just got to put everything together. I'm making great plays and making bad plays. I've just got to be mindful."
His role: Johnson is probably best described, simply, as a guard. He does it all in the backcourt: Johnson can shoot, drive, jump, pass and defend well. His strong across-the-box-score numbers are the quantifiable proof.
While both Lyons and Mayes are the main point guard when playing alongside Johnson, there are situations that dictate that the ball is best in Johnson's hands.
Lyons "knows that I love to kick ahead and when he kicks it to me ahead, I create from there," Johnson said. "In the Florida game, he kicked ahead, I drove and kicked it to Solomon for a big three."
His extra touch: Johnson has quickly developed into the Wildcats' top perimeter defender, assuming the role that Kyle Fogg had last season. Among other performances, Johnson kept Oral Roberts gunner Warren Niles to just 2-for-8 shooting in the first half of UA's 89-64 win Tuesday. He also averages 3.0 steals a game in a defense that does not emphasize lunging for them.
"To watch Nick's adjustment on defense from his freshmen year to his sophomore year is remarkable," Miller said. "There were times a year ago where he would have been a liability defensively. So just to watch how hard he's worked and how he's learned a lot from Kyle. He's taken that role as a defensive stopper very seriously, and his steals right now are off the chart."
He said it: "If it was me last year and him as a freshman or sophomore, (sharing point guard duties) probably would be difficult. But we're two grown men, and we have one common goal - we just want to win. So both of us are sacrificing."
On StarNet: Follow the Cats on Bruce Pascoe's blog at azstarnet.com/pascoe
Arizona guards by the numbers
Player Pts Reb. Ast. A/TO Stl. FG% 3PT% FT% Min.
Mark Lyons 13.9 1.6 3.0 1.1-1 0.8 48.7 41.5 86.5 27.3
Nick Johnson 13.6 3.1 3.6 2.1-1 3.0 54.5 43.8 72.7 29.4
Jordin Mayes 4.0 1.0 1.4 1.3-1 1.1 38.7 29.4 87.5 13.9
Gabe York 2.8 0.5 1.0 6-1 0.3 50.0 25.0 1.000 6.7*
*Did not play in three games
• What: Arizona vs. East Tennessee St. in the Diamond Head Classic
• Where: Honolulu
• When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
• TV: ESPNU