Nick's knack: Johnson sparks Arizona

LAS VEGAS -- Solomon Hill is the first-team all-league selection, Mark Lyons leads the team in scoring and Kaleb Tarczewski headlined Arizona’s latest nationally ranked recruiting class.

Still, ask anyone who follows the Wildcats to name the most important player on Arizona’s roster, and the answer is always the same: Nick Johnson.

“No question,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “He has the ability to make them an elite level team.”

Boyle realized that more than ever Thursday during Arizona’s 79-69 victory over the Buffaloes in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament. Johnson, a shooting guard, scored a team-high 18 points. But it was his pesky defense on Colorado leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie that made the biggest impact.

Dinwiddie finished with 18 points, but he missed eight of his 12 shots from the field and was just 1-of-4 from 3-point range. Dinwiddie became irritated when questioned about Johnson’s strong defensive effort on him after the game. “I don’t know what you want me to say to that,” he said, but Boyle understood his frustration.

“Nick locked him up,” Boyle said.

As a result, Colorado is headed home to await Selection Sunday while Arizona prepares for Friday’s semifinal against Pac-12 regular-season champion UCLA. The Wildcats are 0-2 against the Bruins this season.

Arizona's last loss came on March 2 -- just two days after a setback against USC that knocked the Wildcats out of the conference title picture.

“That whole trip to LA, it was kind of like a curse and a gift at once,” Miller said. “Sometimes when you go through what we did, you have to self-reflect and make sure that both individually and collectively we’re moving in the right direction.”

That certainly seemed to be the case Thursday, and a lot of it was because of Johnson. The sophomore went through a month-long slump in February in which he scored in double figures just once in eight games. Johnson, though, has been back to his old self in the last week. He’s averaging 15 points in his last three contests and, more importantly to him, his defensive effort has improved.

“If you look at all of our losses, it’s when I didn’t bring it on the defensive end,” Johnson said. “I know that and I’m taking it personally. I’m going to do my best to bring that high level of intensity every game.”

When that happens, No. 18 Arizona looks more like the team that was ranked as high as No. 2 earlier this season instead of the one that dropped four of seven contests in the second half of league play.

“When Nick is playing like he did [tonight], that’s when we’re at our best, for sure,” Miller said. “He does so many things for our team. There are times when he’s almost like a point guard out there on offense. He’s a defender that has immense talent and he’s a capable scorer and shooter, too.

“Like any young player, he went through a stretch where he lost some confidence, but he’s got it back now.”

Arizona is void of a true star -- but the Wildcats have a ton of nice pieces that make them a threat for a deep NCAA tournament run.

Boyle said he thought Hill would’ve been named Pac-12 Most Valuable Player if the the Wildcats had won the league title. Lyons, the Xavier transfer, has done a nice job of manning the backcourt even though he’s not a true point guard. And freshmen forwards such as Tarczewski, Grant Jerrett and Brandon Ashley are getting more and more comfortable as their minutes increase.

“When you look at their lineup, they’ve got the most quality depth of anyone in our league,” Boyle said. “They have good players on the floor and they bring good players off the bench. They were dialed in tonight.”

None more so than Johnson.

*In unrelated news, Boyle said he’s confident Colorado will receive an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, but he doesn’t want to get his hopes up. The Buffaloes appeared to be a virtual lock to make the field two years ago but were inexplicably omitted from the field.

“I told our guys we’re going to play in the postseason,” he said. “I just don’t know which tournament.”