March Madness 2014: Arizona asserts itself as the favorite on right side of the bracket

Jeff Gross

The Wildcats looked like they were in danger of going down against San Diego State. Then Nick Johnson and Arizona defense woke up.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

Nick Johnson was already 0-for-9 from the field when his 10th shot of the night went halfway down before popping back out. There were just over 10 minutes remaining and No. 1 Arizona was still down three to San Diego State.

The Aztecs had not trailed since six minutes into the game and looked to be in control. Not many teams left in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 could match Arizona's size, length and athleticism, but the Aztecs were one. All San Diego State needed to win was a little good fortune, and Johnson's nightmare game certainly counted as such.

For the first 30 minutes on Thursday, all of Arizona's worst fears bubbled to the surface. Ever since power forward Brandon Ashley went down with a season-ending foot injury in February, the biggest question surrounding the Wildcats was whether they could score enough to win the national title. As San Diego State clamped down and Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and the Wildcats biggest offensive weapon, went cold, it seemed like the stars were aligning for an upset.

Perhaps the only unfortunate thing about Arizona's comeback to earn a 70-64 victory and move on to the Elite Eight was the timing of it all. In Memphis, Florida and UCLA were in a close contest coming down to the wire, too, and dividing your attention between these two games featuring four talented teams just didn't seem fair. If you had your eyes on the Bruins and Gators, you missed an offensive explosion by Arizona for which Wildcats fans had been waiting all night.

Per Ken Pom, Arizona outscored San Diego State 29-20 in the final 10 minutes of the game to steal victory. You can point directly to the impact of Johnson, who finally got going after a terrible start.

Johnson made his first bucket with 2:51 left in the game when T.J. McConnell fed him for a layup on the break. Johnson would only make one other field goal to finish the night 2-for-10, but he was money from the foul line when Arizona needed him to be. As we've seen throughout this tournament, that's no small thing. Poor free throw shooting has cost more than team a chance at advancing in the bracket, and Johnson finished his night a perfect 10-for-10 from the line.

For Johnson, a junior, falling in the Sweet 16 was simply no way for his season to end. He had come too far. Johnson bided his time his first two years in school behind a cast that included Solomon Hill until he could finally be the focal point of Arizona's offensive scheme. All he did this season was take home every conference honor possible and place third in Ken Pom's Player of the Year standings, behind only Russ Smith and Doug McDermott.

Johnson's ascent in his third year as been as pivotal as any one storyline surrounding the Wildcats this season, but he's far from a one-man show. Arizona is deep with the type of talent and athleticism rarely seen at the college level, and it's manifested throughout the tournament in the form of a pair of freshman forwards.

Aaron Gordon was going to be rich in a few months regardless, but his impressive play in the tournament has only solidified his NBA stock. Gordon was tremendous again against San Diego State, finishing with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting and six rebounds.

That work on the glass is not to be discounted. The Wildcats were uncharacteristically out-rebounded by eight on the night, and the Aztecs' edge on the boards was particularly noticeable in the first half. That's when Josh Davis -- a 6'8, 220-pound senior -- had six points and 12 rebounds. He ended the game with six points and 14 rebounds, in part because Gordon focused on keeping him boxed out.

Oh yeah, Gordon also did this:


Gordon isn't the only impact freshman who was at the McDonald's All-American Game a year ago at this time. The Wildcats have Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, too, and he's also been playing his best ball of the season at the best time.

Hollis-Jefferson scored 15 points, including going 7-of-8 from the line, to continue his dominant play. He's scored at least 13 points in every tournament game thus far, and has been a key force in helping Arizona turn defense into quick offense at the other end of the floor.

March Madness

Hollis-Jefferson and especially Gordon are going to be playing in the NBA at some point, and Johnson has that type of athleticism. At 6'2 and without traditional point guard skills or elite shooting ability, Johnson may be an awkward fit in the pros, but his NBA-level speed and bounce is a big part of what makes Arizona such a difficult matchup.

The Wildcats will have their hands full again in the Elite Eight against a Wisconsin team that just gets it, as evidenced by the Spurs-like way the Badgers whipped the ball around the halfcourt against Baylor's zone in their blowout win over the Bears. These aren't your older brother's Badgers, in that Bo Ryan's team can score with ease. The one thing they can't do it match athletes with Arizona, and that's why the Wildcats will be the favorite.

While the left side the bracket continues to shake itself out, it's become clear Arizona is the favorite on the right side. Louisville, Kentucky, Tennessee and Michigan each have the talent to reach the Final Four, but none of them would be favored over the Wildcats.

Arizona has had the No. 1 defense all season, and it isn't letting up any time soon. If defense wins championships, the Wildcats have to like their chances.

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