Survive and advance is the motto of every NCAA tournament team, but for Arizona, the top-seeded Wildcats' game against Weber State on Thursday holds an additional meaning: Don't be the first.
One hundred and eighteen No. 16 seeds have attempted to knock off their top-seeded counterparts. All have failed. The No. 16 seed is largely seen as a patsy, one that can be overrun with seeming ease, giving the national elite an easy time as they head to the round of 32.
It's also an opportunity for elite players like Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 Player of the Year and USBWA first-team All-American, to showcase their talents—right before getting the heck out as the final seconds drain off the clock.
If things are going well for the Wildcats, none of their top stars will go over the 30-minute mark, and they'll spend their second half beginning the preparation for the winner of Oklahoma State-Gonzaga.
In the meantime, Johnson should be able to have an awful lot of fun torching Weber State guards Jordan Richardson and Jeremy Senglin. The Big Sky champions come into Thursday's opening round as the second-worst remaining No. 16 seed, ahead of only Coastal Carolina in Ken Pomeroy's overall rankings. They're one of only five tournament teams with a negative scoring margin over a 100-possession sample.
Seriously. Something is very, very wrong in basketball's flux capacitor if Arizona doesn't cover Vegas Insider's 20-points spread.
As for Johnson himself, expecting jaw-dropping stats would be to misunderstand his game. Johnson's key component this season has been his steadiness. He has 11 games scoring 20 or more points, but none have topped the 25-point mark. That's in no way a denigration, but merely a fact that shows Johnson plays within Sean Miller's system and only takes over a game when necessary—or when Miller tells him in the huddle to do so.
That being said, if there's any modicum of a chance that Arizona becomes the first No. 1 seed to lose, odds are Johnson has had a terrible game.
In the Wildcats' four losses during the regular season, Johnson shot a miserable 19-of-66 (28.7 percent). The offense, which ranked a shaky No. 36 nationally, craters whenever Johnson's jumper is off. And considering the composition of their roster, it makes sense.
Point guard T.J. McConnell is far better at creating for others than himself, Aaron Gordon is still developing every facet of his game and isn't ready to be a consistent offensive force and Kaleb Tarczewski's best offensive skill is height.
On a night-to-night basis, perhaps no No. 1 seed is more reliant on one player for their offensive output. Plenty of Arizona's offensive possessions begin with a base action or two out of the set, and if that doesn't work, Johnson will receive a pass at the top of the key and run a high pick-and-roll. He has finished roughly 19.7 percent of his possessions out of the pick-and-roll this season, scoring within the 81st percentile nationally, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
The Wildcats also love running an action where Johnson comes off an initial pass and then dribbles immediately into a waiting pick-and-roll at the left wing. He's not great at finishing in isolations—Johnson hit only 26.5 percent of his shots this season—so the extra initial screen allows him the step needed to get off a good shot.
Pick-and-roll should be a staple of the Wildcats' offense on Friday against a Weber State team that's struggled against the set all year. Synergy measures Randy Rahe's club in the 47th percentile defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers, and given that number is not adjusted for strength of schedule, Johnson should have success. Defending a Johnson-Gordon action is difficult for Pac-12 teams—let alone for mid-majors at an athletic disadvantage.
Johnson and Arizona might actually have more of a challenge defensively in the round of 64. And, yes, I realize the Wildcats rank first in defensive efficiency by more than two points; we're talking relativities here.
Like any good mid-major should, Weber State places a direct emphasis on shooting the three. The Webercats (Sorry; writing about two teams with the same nickname is hard) take 37.3 percent (subscription required) of their shots beyond the three-point line, the 10th-highest number among tournament teams.
More importantly, they're pretty darn good at it. Leading scorer Davion Berry leads an offense shooting 39.4 percent from beyond the arc, ranking 12th nationally during the regular season and fourth among tournament teams.
We’re going to play a regular-season champion, a tournament champion. Somebody (Weber coach Randy Rahe) who has been in the tournament before, and (has) a fantastic 3-point shooting team. Anytime you play a team that is that prolific on offense, that has shooters like Weber State does; they’re the team who can be successful in the NCAA tournament.
If there is even a relative weakness in the Arizona defense, it's three-point defense. The Wildcats were 43rd nationally (subscription required) in defending the deep stripe. Opposing teams often had to rely on the three, simply because the team's length and athleticism inside made it impossible to score. (Arizona ranks second in two-point defense.)
It's unclear how Miller will align his defense, but it stands to reason Berry should see a healthy dose of Johnson in man-to-man sets. Johnson's on-ball defense has been stellar throughout the regular season, and though he's rarely been a primary defender for a pick-and-roll, it will at the very least be an interesting matchup. Odds are, Berry shoots enough that his final stat line looks respectable against the nation's best defense.
Regardless, we're looking at a blowout here. Expect Johnson and his teammates to get in, get out and get on with their lives.
Nick Johnson Projected Stat Line: 17 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 6-of-10 FG
All advanced stats via KenPom.
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