Nick Johnson

Arizona's Gabe York and T.J. McConnell (AP Photo)

Arizona’s senior point guard works to be an even better leader in 2014-15

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Despite the loss of NBA draft picks Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, Arizona is expected to be one of the contenders to cut down the nets in Indianapolis next spring. One reason is the arrival of one of the country’s best recruiting classes, a group led by elite wing Stanley Johnson. But more important than the newcomers are the players due back in Tucson, including big men Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski, small forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and point guard T.J. McConnell.

A question for Sean Miller’s Wildcats had to address during the summer was who would step forward as the team leaders, with Johnson’s depature leaving a noticeable void in that area. One player who has stepped forward is McConnell, and in an interview with Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star he discussed life without Johnson and how much the Houston Rocket helped team chemistry last season.

Is it different for you in your third year here?

A: Kind of. Last year, Nick was that go-to guy that we always went to. He was that rah-rah guy, pretty much our leader. He’s gone and new leaders have to step in whether it be me or anyone else. I’m fully capable and willing to take that role and I’m going to push everyone every day and try to do what Nick did for us last year.

Was living together last year fun or did you get on each other’s nerves? You’re together so much anyway.

A: At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to see these guys every day. I’m not sure everyone felt the same way. But it was good to just be able to walk next door and talk to the guys after a game, and after a bad practice you’d have all those guys surrounding you. So it was actually good. Nick was 100 percent the reason we did that and I thank him for that.

Offseason workouts can go a long way towards determining who the team leaders will be, and given McConnell’s position as the starting point guard he should be a natural fit for that role. Leaders are important for any team, much less one that will have to manage lofty preseason expectations while looking to complete the mission they saw come to a tough end in the Elite Eight last year.

Arizona has plenty of talent; outside of Kentucky there may not be another team in the country that can match their depth especially with Ashley back from the broken foot that ended his sophomore year in January. But prognostications and hype win teams nothing, and it will be imperative that McConnell and the other veterans make sure their young teammates have a clear understanding of that.

Arizona loses Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson to the 2014 NBA Draft

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Several members of Arizona had decisions to make regarding their future following a season that ended with an appearance in the Elite 8.

While Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley announced they would all return to school, giving the Wildcats another talented front court next season, starters Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson declared for the 2014 NBA Draft.

For the 6-foot-9 Gordon this had been an expected since he arrived on campus as one of the more talked about freshmen in the country. In his lone collegiate season, Gordon averaged 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks per game. He is projected as the No. 8 overall pick according to DraftExpress.com.

MOREThe entire list of players entering the 2014 NBA Draft

Johnson will forgo his senior season after being named the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year and a second team All-American, leading Arizona in scoring at 16.3 points in addition to his 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. Despite his success this season and improvement made in his career, Johnson is on the outside looking in as far as the first round is concerned. He’s currently projected as the No. 48 overall pick by Draft Express.

“He’s made a meteoric improvement across the board in his time at Arizona, and that stems from his unbelievable attitude. Nick, his family and our staff came together and we think it’s appropriate that he moves on to the next level,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said on Tuesday. “When you’re a first-team All-American, it speaks volumes to your talent. He leaves Arizona with my complete support and I have no doubt that he’s going to be successful at the next level.”

Report: Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon expected to declare for 2014 NBA Draft

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Arizona’s season came to an end on Saturday night with a heartbreaking, overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Elite 8 in Anaheim. The attention will now shift to freshman forward Aaron Gordon, and whether or not he will declare for the 2014 NBA Draft.

Shortly after the loss, Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports tweeted that sources informed him that Gordon would declare for the NBA draft, “barring a stunning change of mind.”

Gordon averaged 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 block per game in what could be his only season in Tucson, though, moments after Saturday night’s loss he didn’t close the door on returning for his sophomore season.

“You know, I’m not sure,” Gordon told reporters on Saturday night. “I have a great foundation so I’m going to talk to a few people and see how that goes and then make an educated decision.”

MOREThe entire list of players entering the 2014 NBA Draft

All season long Gordon has expected to be a one-and-done given that he’s a lock for the lottery, currently projected as the eighth overall pick by DraftExpress.com. Despite shooting 3-of-11 from the field against the Badgers, he hauled in 18 rebounds (six offensive) against Wisconsin on Saturday night. Gordon helped send the game to overtime when he forced Wisconsin guard Traevon Jackson into a contested, step back jump shot.

Gordon might not be the only Wildcat eyeing the upcoming NBA draft. Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, is listed as an early second round pick according to DraftExpress.com.

Four finalists for 2014 Naismith Trophy announced

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Sunday afternoon the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced the four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, which is given annually to the best player in college basketball. The finalists are Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson, Creighton senior forward Doug McDermott, Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker and Louisville senior guard Russ Smith.

Of the four finalists just one, McDermott, has been a finalist for the Naismith Trophy before with the Big East Player of the Year making the list in both 2012 and 2013. Fan votes will account for one-fourth of of the selection process, with voting opening up March 24 and continuing until April 5. The winner will be announced April 6 in Dallas.

McDermott and Johnson won Player of the Year awards in their respective conferences this season, and all four have made various All-America teams since the end of the regular season. McDermott, the favorite to win many of the major individual awards, is averaging 27.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest. Johnson, who helped lead Arizona to a Pac-12 regular season title and a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, has accounted for 16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game for Sean Miller’s Wildcats.

Smith has been the leader for a Louisville team that is in the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season and won both the regular season (shared with Cincinnati) and tournament titles in the American Athletic Conference. Smith is averaging 18.1 points, 4.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game for the defending national champions. And Parker, the ACC’s Freshman of the Year, averaged 19.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for a Duke team that finished the season with a record of 26-9 (13-5 ACC).

Pac-12 Tournament: No. 4 Arizona rolls over Utah

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After holding off Washington on Wednesday, Pac-12 tournament eight-seed Utah was faced with a great albeit challenging opportunity. Beat No. 4 Arizona, a team they’d been competitive against in both regular season meetings, and the Utes’ slim hopes of an at-large bid would have some life despite their weak non-conference schedule.

Sean Miller’s Wildcats were in no mood for drama, outscoring Utah 27-6 over the final 15:29 of the first half on their way to an impressive 71-39 win in Las Vegas. Utah shot just 25.5% from the field, and leading scorers Delon Wright and Jordan Loveridge were the most notable victims of Arizona’s suffocating defensive effort.

Wright accounted for just five points (1-for-8 FG), three rebounds and four assists, and Loveridge scored just two points on 0-for-6 shooting. Arizona’s length and athleticism was more problematic for Utah than it was in either regular season meeting, as it not only robbed Utah of the ability to create offense within their offense but also kept their best creators from accomplishing anything outside of the offensive framework.

The 13 points Utah scored in the first half set a Pac-12 tournament record for fewest points scored in a half, breaking a mark the Utes set in last year’s semifinal loss to Oregon (15 points).

Offensively Arizona shot 52.9% from the field with Nick Johnson (14 points), T.J. McConnell (13) and Aaron Gordon (11) all reaching double figures in what was a balanced effort. The Wildcats scored 32 points in the paint, 13 points off of Utah turnovers and 12 second-chance points. Arizona does have capable shooters in Johnson and Gabe York, but this isn’t a group that’s best-served to simply fire away from deep. Instead, using their ability to get inside and on the offensive boards makes Arizona a tougher team to defend and that was the case against Utah.

Next up for Arizona, which is well on its way to the top seed in the West Region (and a likely San Diego-to-Anaheim path), is the winner of the quarterfinal between Colorado and California.

College Basketball Talk’s Player of the Year Power Rankings

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1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Remember when people were worried whether or not McDermott would be able to succeed outside the Missouri Valley? Well, he’s averaging 26.0 points and 7.2 boards while shooting 52.0% from the field, 44.1% from three and 88.7% from the line on a top ten team that still has a chance to win the Big East title. I think he’s done alright. With this being the last edition of the Player of the Year Power Rankings, I think that it’s safe to say that McDermott has got this in the bag.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: The biggest internal struggle that I have with putting Parker this high in the Player of the Year rankings is that he’s a terrible defender. But he can score, and he’s the player that allows Duke to be such a matchup nightmare with his ability to defend in the post and score on the perimeter. If he wasn’t cleaning the defensive glass as effectively as he has been, this may be a different conversation.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: Every time I watch Louisville play, I am more impressed with the development of Russ Smith. He’s a playmaker on both ends of the floor, a guy that simply fits perfectly in what Rick Pitino wants his team to be able to do. Add in the fact that his leadership and ability to handle the point has improved dramatically, and what you get is the No. 3 player in our Player of the Year rankings.

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4. Shabazz Napier, UConn: Shabazz has struggled with his shot a bit of late, but that doesn’t hurt his standing. Where would UConn be this season without him? He’s a facilitator, he’s their best scorer, their best playmaker, an excellent defender, their leading rebounder (at 6-foot-1!!), and the guy that takes and makes the big shots.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Johnson has been going through a bit of a shooting slump lately, but Arizona’s offense has taken off with Sean Miller’s new uptempo approach. Johnson’s athleticism in transition and ability on the defensive end should allow him to thrive.

6. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: The Bearcats have lost three of their last five games, but that doesn’t change the fact that Kilpatrick is by far the best offensive weapon on a top 15 team that struggles to score.

7. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Ennis is still the same player that he has been all season despite his team’s struggles. It’s not his fault that Jerami Grant’s back is acting up and that Trevor Cooney, when you factor out the 9-for-12 that he shot against Notre Dame, is just a 28% long range shooter in ACC play. Ennis is a facilitator at the point. If the Orange need him to take over scoring the ball, they are going to be in some trouble.

8. Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: The Lobos are back in the top 25 and are playing as well as anyone west of the Mississippi not named Arizona. So while Kendall Williams is having a better season than he did when he won Mountain West Player of the Year and Alex Kirk has been terrific, the reason why New Mexico is this good is because Cameron Bairstow has turned into one of the best low-post players in the country.

9. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: Anderson is still putting up just massive numbers on what is probably still the Pac-12’s second-best team. That said, he’s going to want to go ahead and make sure that he isn’t suspended for anymore games. If he plays against Oregon at home, the Bruins probably beat the Ducks in double overtime.

10. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: It’s been too long that I’ve kept Wiggins off of this list. He’s the leading scorer, third leading rebounder and best perimeter defender on a top five team that is currently up three games in what many believe to be the toughest conference in the country. And he’s a disappointment? We’ve got some high standards.

Others: Jordan Adams, Billy Baron, Malcolm Brogdon, Jabari Brown, Bryce Cotton, Cleanthony Early, Joel Embiid, C.J. Fair, Marcus Foster, Aaron Gordon, Gary Harris, Rodney Hood, Frank Kaminsky, Deandre Kane, Kevin Pangos, Lamar Patterson, Adreian Payne, Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart, Juwan Staten, Nik Stauskas, Xavier Thames, Fred Van Vleet, T.J. Warren, Scottie Wilbekin, Chaz Williams