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.