Nick Johnson had a pretty good argument as Arizona’s MVP of the nonconference last season, but Sean Miller indicated it’s a easy decision this time around.
“Nick Johnson," he said when asked who Arizona's MVP was during UA's nonconference season. "He’s been our most consistent player. He’s done it on both ends. He’s done it game in and game out, and with that, I’d also say the other (top) six are all valuable, they’ve all had great moments, but Nick right now through 13 games is outstanding.
“I wouldn’t trade him for any player in the country, based on his performance. With Nick’s performance, I’d put against any guard in the country through 13 games. He’s a big reason why our team’s 13-0.
“The thing I love about him, along lines of Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson), it’s not (just because) his shot’s going down tonight so he’s paying hard. He just becomes rock solid, a great competitor, a winner, and again somebody who is a really fun guy to coach and be a teammate of because he’s the same every day. By the way he’s the same in practice, too.”
Johnson had 20 points, two assists and a steal in UA’s 77-44 win over NAU on Thursday, having averaged 17.0 points and 0.3 turnovers in UA's last three games.
For the last two games, Miller had a chance to play nine of his 11 scholarship players, giving valuable minutes to Matt Korcheck, Jordin Mayes and Elliott Pitts.
So did that make him feel better about the bench development?
“Jordin did a good job the last couple of games,” Miller said. "That doesn’t surprise me. He’s the most experienced. But, no, I don’t feel good. I feel like Kaleb coming back and with Rondae’s emergence. …
“Gabe York is the one guy who’s really solidified himself. He played great basketball. He might have played the best other than Nick Johnson tonight, with four assists, no turnovers, four steals, two threes. I thought when he was in, a lot of good things happened.
“I feel really good about Gabe moving forward but we’re not nine or 10 deep. (If) guys come in the game and get scored on, they’re not going to play."
One guy who already isn’t playing: Freshman forward Zach Peters.
Peters didn’t show for UA’s Dec. 11 game against New Mexico State because Miller said he was sick but he also didn’t play against Southern or NAU, even as walk-ons played in those two games.
This was how Miller addressed my questions about him:
Was Peters still sick or was there another reason he didn’t play?
“We’re just playing the guys right now that are practicing,” Miller said.
Has he been practicing?
“He’s been on and off,” Miller said.
Is that because he’s still fighting an illness?
“Not really,” Miller said. “It’s just kind of where he’s at right now.”
That’s a far cry from the praise and high expectations Miller appeared to have for Peters when the Kansas transfer was cleared to play immediately by the NCAA and, shortly afterward, by medical staff in the preseason.
In September, Miller said there was "no question" that Peters would play a significant role for the Wildcats.
All the Western-based Wildcats are expected to return home for the team’s three-day break starting today through Friday evening, while Easterners such as T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski are expected to spend time nearby with family and/or friends.
“We’ve got places for them,” Johnson said, smiling.
It also helped that UA has already played in the Eastern Time Zone three times this season, getting those three closer to home.
“Because we played in New York City and were there for four or five days, they all had a chance to see their families and a few of their families came to the Michigan game,” Miller said.
Of course, center Kaleb Tarczewski hardly has time to go home, anyway. Guess what his Christmas present is?
“As much rehab as we can fit into a nice holiday,” trainer Justin Kokoskie said, smiling.
Seriously though, while Tarczewski is scheduled to work on his sprained ankle every day over the break, Kokoskie said he is willing to go just a bit easier if needed.
“We’ll see,” Kokoskie said. “He’s trying to work out details of seeing some family. Maybe we’ll scale it down a little. … We can adjust it depending on what he wants to do for the day. You need a mental break. I don’t want to make this a job for him.
“But he also has an at-home thing, with different exercises, and it's a matter of me calling and making sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to.”
The Wildcats didn’t have much of a break last season, having to fly home from Hawaii on a red-eye Christmas night after winning the Diamond Head Classic.
When they returned to Pac-12 play, Miller soon found things weren’t quite the same.
“When we got back, we lost our defense,” Miller said. “Our defense a year ago was very good. It wasn’t as good as this year’s defense. But we went through a four-to-five week period of time when we got back from Christmas where we didn’t play nearly tough enough defense to be the Pac-12 regular-season champions.
Miller, who actually foreshadowed that trouble before conference play began last season, vowed to do what he could to stop such a problem again.
“One of the things I learned as a coach last year is when you have selfishness or any chemistry breaks from your team or one player gets off on a different page, the first thing that goes isn’t offensive -- it’s defense, and we dealt with that a little bit of that when we came back,” Miller said. “It wasn’t about being 12-0, it was about us as individuals and you could see it in effort, concentration, details.
Later “when we resurged a year ago, our chemistry kind of came back in and our defense came back. That’s when we had a chance to get to the Final Four."
Here's the official box score.