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Offensive rebounding, Nick Johnson push No. 1 Arizona past Utah

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Just a couple days removed from a comfortable win over Colorado, No. 1 Arizona was faced with the task of taking care of business against another opponent they were expected to handle. Utah, which has been much-improved thanks to the addition of Delon Wright and the progression of Jordan Loveridge, has the ability to make things difficult on teams (see their home win over UCLA) but this was not supposed to be a game in which the Wildcats faced one of their largest deficits of the season.

That’s the position Arizona found itself a little more than seven minutes into the game, trailing the feisty Utes by a 12-2 score. The biggest culprit: incredibly poor shooting from the field, with Arizona making just five of its first 22 shots from the field and finishing the first half shooting just 31% from the field.

Ultimately the Wildcats would pull ahead for good just past the halfway point of the second half for two reasons: their ability to punish Utah on the offensive boards, and the excellence of junior guard Nick Johnson.

Arizona rebounded half of its missed shots, converting those 20 offensive rebounds (Aaron Gordon was responsible for seven) into 19 second-chance points, and Johnson scored a game-high 22 points to lead the Wildcats to a 65-56 victory. Now 20-0 and 7-0 in Pac-12 play, the Wildcats have a two-game lead in the standings ahead of their road trip to the Bay Area.

Offensive rebounding has been one of Arizona’s calling cards all season long, as they entered Sunday ranked in the top ten nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. And when you’re as athletic as the Wildcats are, this becomes an area that you can take full advantage of on most nights. That’s what did in Utah, which threw multiple defensive looks at Arizona including a triangle-and-2, a matchup zone and even some man-to-man.

Those looks did a good job in regards to limiting Arizona’s rate of success of their first shots, but on far too many occasions the Utes could not finish the defensive possession by grabbing a rebound. Those extra possessions add up, resulting in Utah losing steam in crunch time.

Individually the night was yet another showcase for Johnson, who at this point is one of the favorites (if not the favorite) to win Pac-12 Player of the Year. Johnson may have led the way scoring-wise but he also was the primary defender against Wright, who scored 19 points but did so shooting 5-for-12 from the field. T.J. McConnell’s addition has made Arizona a better team, and so have the arrivals of talented freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

But if Johnson weren’t ready to take on the leadership role that was at times left vacant a season ago, Arizona may not be as good as they have been to this point in the season. He’s proven to be that player for Arizona, and that’s the biggest reason why they’re still undefeated.

UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman out with a knee injury

UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. shoots against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
(L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.

The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.

They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.

That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.

Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:

VIDEO: Buddy Hield is ‘all money’ on game-winning three vs. No. 24 Texas

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) takes a shot over Oklahoma State forward Chris Oliver during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
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With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.

At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:

“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”

“It’s all money.”

Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.

Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .

Want to talk about coaching luxuries?

Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.