BERKELEY, Calif. — As the Pac-12 Conference campaign nears its midpoint, Nick Johnson has kissed more babies, pointed at more cameras and flashed enough smiles to almost lock up conference Player of the Year honors.
He has outshined the league’s elite and held them down; he has scored at an impressive clip, distributed the ball with ease, defended as if the thought of allowing a single point makes him snarl. He has sent his draft stock soaring. Unquestionably, Arizona would not be 21-0 without him.
He has made Pac-12 coaches stand at attention.
“Nick Johnson, up until this point, is the Player of the Year in our league,” Colorado’s Tad Boyle said. “It’s not even close for me.”
On Thursday night in a gritty 60-57 win at Stanford, Johnson almost single-handedly preserved perfection. With 49 seconds left, Johnson dropped in a tiebreaking three-pointer. Thirteen seconds later, clutch rebound. Five seconds left, free throw, free throw and game over.
“I still haven’t seen all the teams, but from what I’ve seen on tape, he’s definitely in the running,” Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. “He’s definitely in the conversation. Nobody playing any better, that’s for sure.”
Johnson’s POY candidacy is no idle fact; it’s not as if the award would simply be going to the best player on the best team. He averages 16.7 points and does so efficiently, resisting the temptation to stunt the offense with me-me-me shots. His 1.71 three-pointers per game rank seventh in the conference, and lately, he’s been good for two daggers per game.
“He just seems to make the right play at the right time,” Utah coach Larry Krystowiak said. “He’s a keeper for sure. Probably the odds-on favorite for Player of the Year at the halfway point and rightfully so.”
And then there’s his defense.
A public relations rep facing a scandal doesn’t defend as well. Richard Sherman could learn a thing or two. A starving junkyard Rottweiler doesn’t guard the lot like Johnson takes on the opposition.
His hounding of Chasson Randle in the win over Stanford is proof enough.
Randle, the conference’s No. 4 scorer, had 12 points on 3-of-15 shooting, his worst offensive performance of the season.
“In my opinion, Nick is the best defender in the country,” his Arizona running mate T.J. McConnell said. “They have (Ohio State’s) Aaron Craft as the best defender. Nick I don’t think gets enough credit for how he defends.”
It was the kind of performance that we’ve seen before, but we can’t see enough of.
The Cardinal would rather never see Johnson again.
“Like Coach said, I haven’t seen everybody, but it’s hard to argue with the top player on the undefeated team,” Stanford Josh Huestis said.
Not just in it, but leading. Here’s a look at the other candidates:
Representing: Corvallis, Ore.
Campaign contributions: 22.2 points per game (No. 1 in Pac-12), 3.74 assists (13th), .863 free-throw percentage (fourth), 161 free throws attempted (first), 139 free throws made (first), .398 three-point percentage (13th), 1.84 three-pointers per game (fifth), 1.25 assist-turnover ratio (14th)
Biggest donations: Nelson went off for 36 points in Oregon State’s season opener against Coppin State, his first of three 30-point games this year. He had 31 on 9-of-17 shooting and 12-of-14 free-throw shooting in a big early-season win over Maryland, 22 points and four rebounds in a big win over in-state rival Oregon and 21 points and five rebounds in a surprising win over Stanford.
Winning tickets: Nelson could score his way into the election with a strong road finish, as the Beavers have five road tests remaining, including games at Arizona, Oregon and UCLA. Big scoring outputs by the only conference player scoring more than 20 points per game could be enough for the nod.
Skeletons in the closet: Utah held Nelson to 16 in an 80-69 home win on Jan. 4, one of only six sub-20-point games for Nelson this season.
Seniority: Redshirt senior
Campaign Contributions: 19.6 points per game (No. 2 in Pac-12), 3.74 assists (13th), .861 free-throw percentage (fifth), .424 three-point percentage (eighth), 3.05 three-pointers per game (first), 1.14 blocks per game (10th), 35.57 minutes played per game (first).
Biggest donation: Washington’s star lit up Colorado for 31 points, including seven three-pointers, and added four rebounds, four blocks, two assists and two steals in the Huskies’ 17-point win on Jan. 12. He also had 24 points against both Indiana and UC-Irvine.
Winning ticket: The Huskies have a relatively easy slate to close the season, and big games against the dregs of the conference could play in his favor. Games against USC, Washington State (twice), Oregon State and Utah remain.
Skeletons in the closet: An 18-game double-figures streak to start the season went down the tubes with a nine-point performance on 4-of-13 shooting in a 79-67 loss to Stanford on Jan. 18.
Representing: Palo Alto, Calif.
Campaign Contributions: 18.7 ppg (No. 4 in Pac-12), 102 free throws (second), 1.70 three-pointers per game (eighth)
Biggest donation: Before an explosion against Washington on Jan. 18, Randle’s biggest performances came in Stanford losses: He scored 33 points in a loss to BYU and 30 in a loss at Oregon State. Then he torched the Huskies for a season-defining 33 points in a 79-67 win.
Winning ticket: The Cardinal has perhaps the toughest remaining conference schedule, with games at Arizona, Cal and Washington and home tests against UCLA and Colorado.
Skeletons in the closet: Once again, Randle was decimated by Arizona for the third straight year, as the Cardinal guard can hardly gain traction against the Wildcats. He managed just 12 points Wednesday in a 60-57 home loss to Arizona.
Campaign Contributions: 18.9 points per game (No. 3 in Pac-12), 4.67 assists (sixth), .424 three-point percentage (ninth), 1.31 assist-turnover ratio (13th), 33.86 minutes per game (seventh).
Biggest donation: Arizona State’s guard isn’t exactly a dark horse candidate — he was brilliant as a freshman and entered the season with perhaps the biggest rep in the conference — but a 40-point outburst in an early- season 86-80 win over UNLV put him all over the sports landscape. After struggling early in conference play, Carson has turned it on in recent weeks, including a huge 29 points in the Sun Devils’ 89-78 OT win at Cal on Wednesday.
Winning ticket: With the cream of the conference crop still on tap — road tests at Colorado and Oregon, home dates against Stanford, Cal and in-state rival Arizona — Carson has a chance to raise even more eyebrows.
Skeletons in the closet: Carson has been utterly dominant at times this season. Not so in a 60-57 loss to Miami on Dec. 1. Carson finished with eight points on 2-of-14 shooting and managed just three assists in the loss. Then, a 15-point loss to UCLA was saddled on Carson, who finished with just 4-of-17 shooting and 0-for-5 from three-point range.
Representing: Westwood, Calif.
Campaign contributions: 15.5 points per game (No. 12 in Pac-12), 9.0 rebounds per game (third), 6.65 assists per game (first), 1.75 steals per game (fourth), 2.22 assist-turnover ratio (fouth), 7.65 defensive rebounds per game (second).
Biggest donation: He scored a triple-double in UCLA’s win over Morehead State.
Winning ticket: The Bruins won’t have much trouble down the stretch, with only one difficult road trip — to the Bay Area — and a matchup at Washington. Anderson has already boosted his stock, and his body of work may be the biggest threat to Johnson’s candidacy.
Skeletons in the closet: Anderson faltered in an 80-71 loss at Missouri, scoring just 13 points with a season-low two assists. For a multitalented star like Anderson, who prides himself on his distribution skills, it was a blow.
Representing: Berkeley, Calif.
Campaign contributions: 15.5 points per game (No. 12 in Pac-12), .804 free-throw percentage (13th), 112 free throws attempted (fifth), 90 free throws made (fifth), 6.0 assists per game (second), 2.47 assist-turnover ratio (third), 33.71 minutes played per game (ninth).
Biggest donation: Cobbs’ 31-point game in Cal’s win over Dayton in late November was nice, but it’s Cobbs’ dual-threat abilities — scoring and passing — that makes him shine. Cobbs had 20 points, 11 assists and six boards in a 13-point win over then-No. 17 Oregon on Jan. 9.
Winning ticket: The Bears have slipped as of late but with two remaining games against Arizona, plus games against Stanford, Colorado and Washington remaining, Cobbs has room to grow.
Skeletons in the closet: A 3-for-14 shooting performance in a 72-65 loss at Santa Barbara isn’t going to impress anybody.