Drexel Arizona Basketball

Nick Johnson becoming a go-to guy is the key for No. 4 Arizona

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — Arizona is an elite defensive team.

You should know this by now. I’ve written about it twice in the last three days. Their size, their versatility and the presence of terrific individual defenders makes them as tough to score on as anyone in the country.

The issue with Arizona is on the offensive end of the floor. As Drexel proved on Wednesday night, if you want to beat Arizona, you have to force them into a half court, possession-by-possession game by being physical with their guards and taking away the sets they want to run. As athletic and as talented as they are, the Wildcats don’t have an abundance of skill offensively.

That’s what makes Nick Johnson so important.

Right now, Johnson is probably Arizona’s most skilled player offensively, their biggest threat in the half court.

“Nick’s become [a go-to guy] for us,” head coach Sean Miller said. “He’s taken big shots and he’s made them.”

Johnson is the Wildcat’s leading scorer, as he entered Friday averaging 17.3 points. He struggled in the first half, but scored 13 of his 15 points after intermission, including eight points and a pair of assists during the game-changing, 20-5 run in their 72-66 win over No. 6 Duke. Miller was not only impressed with Johnson’s ability to hit a big shot, but the fact that he did it after such a poor first half.

“There’s a lot of go-to guys that are doing well when things are going well for them and their team,” Miller said. “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. It’s great to see Nick developing into that.”

“Each year he’s added to his role and his game. I don’t know if there are more complete guards in the country with what he means to our team.”

The key for Arizona this season is going to be the play of their perimeter attack. It’s not a secret that the Wildcats are a big, physical front line. In both games in Madison Square Garden this week, the Wildcats made it a priority to get the ball into the paint to Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley. They know where their bread gets buttered.

But in order to keep defenses from collapsing on those big guys, Arizona’s guards are going to have to be able to produce. They have to be able to knock down their threes to help spread the floor. They have to be able to keep defenses honest. When Duke took their biggest lead at 43-37, Arizona was 2-for-11 from the floor. For the remainder of the game, Arizona was 3-for-3 from deep, which not only sparked their run but also forced Duke out of a man-to-man defense.

So yes, it’s more than just Johnson.

But he’s their best perimeter scorer, and when he plays like it, it makes the Wildcats a much more dangerous team.

WATCH LIVE: Hofstra travels to Delaware on NBCSN

James Madison forward Yohanny Dalembert (40) prepares to shoot against Hofstra forward Rokas Gustys, behind, during the first half of an NCAA basketball game in Harrisonburg, Va., Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. (Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
(Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record via AP)
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Hofstra tries to keep pace with the conference’s elite as they travel to Delaware on Saturday afternoon. You can watch this CAA battle live on NBCSN at 5:00 p.m. EST.

The Pride (17-8, 9-4) are currently two games behind conference leader UNC-Wilmington and they’re trying to make a run to close out the season. Senior guard Juan’ya Green leads the Pride in points (17.7 ppg), assists (7 apg) and steals (1.8 spg) and he’s surrounded by a dangerous supporting cast.

Delaware (6-18, 1-12) had lost 15 consecutive games before beating Drexel in their last game. The Blue Hens have struggled in CAA play but Kory Holden (17.5 ppg, 4 apg) will try to help lead the upset.

These two teams met on Dec. 31 with Hofstra winning that one, 90-80, at home.

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Saturday afternoon.

Michigan gets Caris LeVert back in a win over No. 18 Purdue

Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan (50) tries to steal the ball from Michigan guard Caris LeVert (23) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)
(AP Photo/Tony Ding)
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Zak Irvin scored 22 points and Michigan’s outmanned front line held Purdue’s redwoods to just seven offensive boards, six second chance points and just 22 points in the paint as the Wolverines landed a critical, 61-56, win over the No. 18 Boilermakers.

Depending on who you listen to, Michigan entered the day, at worst, on the bubble and at best, in headed for the 8-9 game.

And they picked up a top 25 win.

So yes, this win was big for them moving forward.

But more important than the win itself was that Wolverine fans got a glimpse of all-american guard Caris LeVert. He played just 11 points and didn’t return in the second half, he didn’t score and he missed the only shot that he took, but LeVert took the court for the first time since Dec. 30th. That day, LeVert rolled his left ankle and most likely reinjured a foot that had had a broken bone surgically repaired twice in the last 20 months. Michigan never confirmed what the actual injury was and never gave a timetable for when he would be back in the lineup, which is what made his brief appearance so important.

LeVert isn’t done for the season.

And since the Wolverines managed to post a 9-4 Big Ten record with LeVert acting as little more than a spectator, they have a chance to make a run in the Big Ten tournament and get into the NCAA tournament.

That will happen with LeVert in the rotation and, if all goes according to plan, the starting lineup.

So even with a loss against Purdue, the Wolverines had a good day. Bolstering their NCAA tournament profile was an added bonus.