Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
NEW YORK — If guard play is the key to college basketball, then Arizona would appear to be poised for a potential deep run come March.
In an NIT Season Tip-Off event that featured future lottery picks Jabari Parker of Duke and Aaron Gordon of Arizona, it was Arizona guard Nick Johnson who won the Most Outstanding Player trophy after the No. 4 Wildcats beat the No. 6 Blue Devils, 72-66, at Madison Square Garden.
Johnson and teammate T.J. McConnell combined for 25 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds and 6 turnovers.
“I don’t know if there are more complete guards in the country than Nick,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
“When you look at what he means to our team and the value, the way he plays both ends of the floor. He’s really turned into a terrific guard.”
Johnson finished with 15 points, 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals and played a key role in the second half, when Arizona outscored Duke, 39-30.
He scored five points — including a 3-pointer — during a 7-0 game-changing run that turned a 45-42 Duke lead into a 49-45 Arizona edge. He then added another 3-pointer during an 8-0 Arizona run that extended the lead to 57-48.
“True go-to guys are the ones that dig their team out of a gutter or are able to put three or four bad plays behind them and make the next big play,” Miller said.
“It’s great to see Nick developing into that.”
Meantime, after sitting out a season following his transfer from Duquesne, McConnell may be the first true playmaker Miller has had during his time in Arizona.
He finished with 10 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, flirting with a double-double against Duke.
“I just went with the flow of the offense, and my teammates aided me with the backups” McConnell said. “And so all credit to them.”
“Huge, huge,” Johnson said of McConnell. “I mean, he had eight assists, two turnovers today. Just huge.
“On defense, he has a little bulldog mentality, gets up in defense and he’s really aggressive. So I mean, it’s been big for our team. His leadership is huge for us.”
Arizona is obviously loaded with athletic and tall forwards and bigs in Gordon, Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski.
But guard play is the key to college basketball, and certainly the key to March.
Right now, it looks like Sean Miller’s club has something special brewing in the backcourt.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.