Backcourt balance could make 'Zona special

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
11:00
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We're focusing intensely on Arizona-Duke this morning for a few reasons: Because it might be one of the last times this season either of the top freshmen (Arizona's Aaron Gordon, Duke's Jabari Parker) square off. Because regardless of that distinction, that's a matchup we want to see. Because the contrast each team offers -- whole waves of Wildcats bigs assaulting the Blue Devils' spread small-ball configuration -- is bound to be fascinating.

Or we can keep it this simple: Duke and Arizona are playing each other on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and that's a game you probably should make sure you consume. Pick a bar with TVs. Etc.

We hold these interests to be self-evident, of course. But -- and yes, here comes the annoying "turns out" portion of this post -- all of the obvious reasons can kind of overshadow what makes Sean Miller's team interesting and threatening and insert-your-preferred-adjective here.

Less fuzzily, if you want to understand why Arizona is one of the best five or six teams in the country to date, you have to talk about the Wildcats' backcourt.

You have to talk about Nick Johnson. Remember Johnson as a freshman? He came to school in 2012 with touted point guard Josiah Turner, one of the great recruiting busts of the past five years, and struggled on a not-very-good 22-12 NIT team. He was better in just about every way as a sophomore, but it's this year Johnson truly has made the proverbial leap: an offensive rating of 130.4, an effective field goal percentage of 61.9, 87 percent from the free throw line, 69 percent from two-point range -- you name it, Johnson is doing it, and he's defending better than ever, too. His viability as a perimeter option makes Arizona's offensive attack multifaceted, far less predictable than last season.

Which is (also) where T.J. McConnell comes in. The former Duquesne transfer has, for all intents and purposes, replaced one-year holdover Mark Lyons at the point guard spot this season. The difference has been that McConnell is actually a point guard. Lyons was always an awkward fit in that role; he was always a shoot-first guard and clashed with Xavier coach Chris Mack for exactly those reasons. When he came to Arizona last season, he scored the ball plenty, but his individual tendencies exacerbated the issues a young Arizona team faced. Lyons, in other words, wasn't the right guy to get everyone else involved. And on a team with a lot of talented big guys who wouldn't handle the ball unless it was delivered to them in the right spots, Lyons was an even worse fit.

McConnell is the polar opposite. His 34.1 percent assist rate to date is a nice number to point to, but the passes he is capable of pulling off -- little pocket bounce-passes, parabola-perfect lobs, even something as simple as a post entry -- have turned Arizona's bevy of big men into universally effective weapons.

He is the perfect guard for this system and personnel, and Johnson is the perfect scorer to lead the way. So when you hear the talk about Gordon, don't forget his backcourt. If Arizona is the real deal in 2013-14, it seems the Wildcats will owe it to Johnson and McConnell.

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