TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona was given little shot at winning the preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden and took the title by knocking off Duke.
An early-morning game on the road against Michigan — with a short turnaround, no less — was another one the Wildcats were supposed to lose. They won that one, too.
A trip to Southern California, where Arizona has had troubles in the past, would surely lead to the Wildcats’ first loss. Nope. They swept two games there and have kept right on winning.
Whatever teams have thrown at them, whatever doubts people have had, the Wildcats have had an answer, leading to the longest winning streak in the storied program’s history and a two-month stay at No. 1.
“We know every single game we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” junior guard Nick Johnson said. “People make shots they don’t normally make against other teams against us. It’s definitely something we’ve adjusted to throughout the year and we’ll continue to battle back.”
Arizona came into the season with lofty expectations, adding two of the nation’s best incoming freshmen to a talented core that had gone to the Sweet 16 the year before.
The Wildcats have been even better than the projections so far, knocking off teams like San Diego State, Duke, Michigan and UCLA during the first 20-game winning streak in their history.
The way Arizona is built, it could keep right on winning for a while.
Defensively, the Wildcats are one of the best in the country, a long, athletic and versatile group that goes at teams in waves. Arizona ranks second nationally at guarding shots inside the 3-point line (40 percent) and fourth in both scoring defense (56.7 points per game) and shooting percentage (37 percent).
On offense, the Wildcats have depth and versatility, with a good mix of players who can score inside, off the dribble and from the perimeter. Arizona has had at least four players score in double figures 14 games this season — seven in a win over rival Arizona State — and has been exceptionally unselfish, recording assists on 58 percent of its made baskets.
With all that length and athleticism, the Wildcats are a lot like a power-running football team that wears teams out by the end of games.
“They grind on you and grind on you and grind on you, and eventually the defense gets tired of being on the field at the end of the game,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the Utes wore down in the second half of a 65-56 loss to the Wildcats on Sunday. “There’s a lot to be said for the way they play.”
The catalyst has been Johnson.
Part of Sean Miller’s heralded 2012 recruiting class, Johnson has developed into Arizona’s leader and go-to player in his third season with the program.
The nephew of NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson, the junior was overlooked when Miller called about getting him into elite camps during the summer.
Playing with a chip on his shoulder from the snubs, Johnson has put himself into the conversation as one of the nation’s best players by scoring 16.7 points per game while playing both guard positions and often guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer. He has also become the player the Wildcats turn to when they need a big basket or stop and he has come through just about every time.
“Nick Johnson is playing as well as any guard in the country. It’s simple,” Miller said. “He’s done it in the biggest moments. He’s terrific. And, by the way, I’m not even talking about offense. I’m talking about leadership, playing more than one position, defending the other team’s best perimeter player.”
Arizona’s two talented freshmen, Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, also have put their imprint on the Wildcats’ success.
They were among the most heralded freshmen in the country coming into a team that had veteran players like Johnson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and T.J. McConnell.
Both freshmen endeared themselves to Miller and their teammates by practicing and playing like walk-ons, going hard on every drill, every play.
Gordon has struggled at the free-throw line (45 percent) and sometimes plays too fast on offense, but has a knack for impacting a game when his shot isn’t falling. He leads the team in rebounding at 7.8 per game and is second in scoring at 12.3 points.
Hollis-Jefferson has been Arizona’s energy booster with his eternally positive attitude and go-hard-all-the-time approach. Entering games like a twisted-up rubber band being released, the 6-foot-7 freshman dives for loose balls, scrambles for offensive rebounds and plays with an infectious enthusiasm.
Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson combined for 12 of Arizona’s 20 offensive rebounds against Utah, giving the Wildcats a chance to pull out the victory after a sluggish start and poor shooting all night.
“The bigger the game, the more competitive the game, those guys are first-year players but they’re really at home when it’s like that,” Miller said.
The same could be said for Miller’s team.