Four Pac-12 Players of the Year were at Gill Coliseum on Thursday night, but only one of them wore a gray UA stocking cap with matching hoodie.
Nick Johnson isn’t yet official as the Player of the Year, that’ll come next week at the Pac-12 tournament, but he’s going to the 18th tee with an insurmountable lead.
It was almost fitting that Johnson scored a career-high 25 points Thursday, as if getting an official stamp from his player-of-the-year predecessors sitting courtside.
Marques Johnson, the 1977 winner at UCLA, was Fox Sports 1’s analyst. Gary Payton, the 1990 winner, was there in spirit, as a Fox Sports studio analyst.
As Johnson was chatting with a small group of reporters in a Gill Coliseum corridor, the 1995 winner, UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, emerged from Arizona’s locker room.
The only other time there’ve been so many Pac-12 Players of the Year in the same building, was probably at one of Arizona’s summer reunions, when Sean Elliott, Chris Mills, Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Derrick Williams were back at McKale Center.
Nick Johnson won’t bite on the subject. Why make himself a bigger target than he already is for Saturday’s Senior Day crucible at Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena?
“They can vote for me, or not vote for me,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter.”
But it does matter.
The only other legitimate contender is UCLA point guard Kyle Anderson, a wonderful offensive player, whose case for POY was scuttled a week ago when he was placed on a disciplinary suspension as the Bruins were mathematically eliminated from the Pac-12 championship by Oregon.
It matters because, in Arizona’s season-turning victory at UCLA, Johnson outplayed Anderson, outscoring him 22-16.
It matters because the Player of the Year has his name placed in the Ring of Honor at McKale, which means the school will someday hold a “Nick Johnson Night.”
And it matters because Johnson has earned it.
He is the league’s most accomplished defensive player, a shut-down specialist who is so good that when the Wildcats went to their small lineup Thursday, he was assigned to cover OSU’s 6-foot-10-inch Eric Moreland.
It’s unknown on how many possessions Johnson guarded Moreland, giving away at least 7 inches each time, but it is known that Moreland scored just four points in the game.
The Beavers would toss the ball to Moreland, isolating him on Johnson. Moreland couldn’t make it go.
As his team was leaving Gill Coliseum, about to take a midnight bus ride to nearby Eugene, Sean Miller looked at a copy of the final statistics and actually cackled (or semi-cackled) as he read Johnson’s line: 25 points, six rebounds, four assists, one turnover.
“He had a huge steal late in the game as well,” said Miller.
Or was it two? It seemed like three.
For the first time this season, or any season, Johnson talked a little smack. It wasn’t headline-making smack, it was more like I-can’t-keep-up-this-aw-shucks delivery much longer.
“In a tough environment like this,” he said, “I try to take over a little bit and be more of an enforcer.”
The Pac-12 Player of the Year doesn’t necessarily, or historically, come from the league champion. Oregon point guard Terrell Brandon won it in 1991 and the Ducks finished tied for fifth, 8-10 in the league.
Six of Cal’s POYs — Jason Kidd, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Ed Gray, Sean Lampley, Jorge Gutierrez or Allen Crabbe — did not finish first.
Johnson will win it for the right reasons. He has been an exemplary, team-first player who made defense his calling card, and then, when the time was right, became its lead option on offense.
If all goes well Saturday, Johnson will score the 11 points necessary to give him 500 for the season, which is rarefied turf in UA basketball history.
As Johnson and Stoudamire crossed paths in the basement of Gill Coliseum late Thursday, Stoudamire was asked about his legacy on this trip, to OSU and Oregon, which led to the 1995 POY honor.
“Never lost,” said Stoudamire. “And I guaranteed the last two of them, too.”
Stoudamire was 8-0 in Corvallis and Eugene during his Arizona days, and 16-0 against the Ducks and Beavers overall. If you add this year’s three victories over the Beavers and Ducks to Stoudamire’s tally, the streak is at 19 and counting.
Nobody’s going to match that streak, not even Nick Johnson, the Pac-12’s Player of the Year-in-waiting.
Nineteen years later, the two men, Stoudamire and Johnson, are about to share more than a few victories over the Ducks and Beavers.