Three things make Arizona great and national championship material: Their defense, Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Defensive efficiency is almost a given, even against a tough San Diego State team which Arizona overcame 70-64, but Gordon leading the team until Johnson finally woke up in the final three minutes was just as important.
This team lost a very important player during the regular season, reducing their rotating to pretty much six, maybe seven players at best. It just means more pressure on both Gordon and Johnson, who delivered at different stages of the game, taking Arizona to the Elite Eight, as the excellent work Sean Miller has been doing of bringing this program back to the front seat of the Pac-12 and College Basketball on a national level gets them through another obstacle.
The Aztecs provided the tough challenge they were supposed to bring. They crashed the offensive glass right from the start, including a crazy opening play, finishing with 18 offensive rebounds. Xavier Thames was a handful with 25 points, usually doing better when he stayed away from shooting 3’s (1-of-6 only). They slowed down the game, and were able to keep Arizona off those high turnover creation numbers they’re used to forcing teams into. But it still wasn’t enough.
Throughout the game, Gordon felt alone on offense. He finished with 15 points, including a big three, a huge alley oop and some impressive difficult tip ins. He finished with 7-of-9 from the field and barely made mistakes, adding 6 rebounds. But he needed Nick Johnson to help him, and the Junior guard simply couldn’t hit anything, going 0-of-10 from the field until the final three minutes, not scoring a single point.
So how good was Johnson in the end? In the final 2:46 of the game he scored 15 points, including one long three pointer, another field goal, and was simply clutch from the line, hitting 10-of-10. All game long nothing worked out for him, but it is usually important how you finish things, with Arizona proving it’s pretty much impossible to count them out of any game, even when things don’t look like they’re going according to plan early on.
He just exploded in the second half. I can’t say that we didn’t play hard defense, but he just made a lot of good shots. It’s amazing for a kid to be able to do that after not making shots for about 25, 30 straight minutes.
The challenges don’t get easier in the next round, maybe facing an even more difficult challenge and defense. Seeing Polee do a very good job in defending Johnson during the first half might have given some idea to their next opponents on how to slow down Johnson and via that Arizona.
But this team is about more than just their star players getting hot. They can hurt you in more than one way and it seems that they have a good enough defense to not just keep them in any game regardless of how badly they’re shooting through certain stretches, but in its nature is aggressive enough to create them some points instead of being there just to try and get stops.