Ex-Findlay star keeps Arizona on title track

SAN DIEGO — It’s a common reaction: One of the best players on one of the nation’s best college basketball teams is lost for the season due to injury and his teammates begin pressing.

They try to score six points on one jump shot, try to pass through openings that are really closed, try to do the impossible when the practicable is still good enough.

Nick Johnson was one who tried too hard for Arizona.

“It wasn’t in a selfish way, but as a team leader, I think Nick wanted to take even more of a burden on his shoulders,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We went through an awkward period there. But I think Nick soon realized that he could be just as good a leader, just as good a player, by being himself. So that’s what he did.”

This is the result: Despite losing sophomore forward Brandon Ashley to a foot injury on Feb. 1 at California, the Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed in the West Region and are a victory from a Sweet 16 appearance in Anaheim, Calif.

That’s the reward for the winner of today’s Arizona-Gonzaga game at Viejas Arena.

That’s the path Johnson and his teammates have dreamed about all season.

He is a former Findlay Prep standout whose role increased when another former Pilots star (Ashley) went down.

Arizona was 21-0 at the time.

It lost at Cal.

Three games later, it lost at Arizona State.

“Losing Brandon actually showed on the court for about a month,” Johnson said. “But I think right now, maybe these last few weeks, we are finally starting to appear comfortable playing without him both on offense and defense.

“He misses playing. It’s sad. But I don’t think anyone thought he would handle it as well as he has. I mean, Brandon has been positive throughout all of it.”

Johnson had to be the key to keep Arizona on its chartered course. Ashley’s numbers — 11.5 points, 5.5 rebounds — would be covered by several. It’s Arizona. Everyone can play.

But in terms of not allowing what had the potential to be a Final Four season to fall short of such a legitimate goal, Johnson used the tools he developed at Findlay Prep to help the Wildcats first regain and then sustain their moxie.

He arrived at the Henderson-based program at age 16. It was a huge adjustment. Away from home, from family in Gilbert, Ariz., from what he knew most. He never worked as hard, never conditioned more, never was held to such a high standard as Findlay Prep demanded.

“I’ve said it a lot before that the experience there helped me grow up and become a man,” Johnson said. “Playing with elite guys there helped me prepare to do so in college. It got me ready for (college basketball) a few years early.”

Johnson averages 16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists, a junior guard who has reached double figures in scoring in all but three of Arizona’s 35 games. The moment never appears too big for him. The stakes never too high.

Arizona hopes such a demeanor shows up again today, when a Gonzaga team that can score from all spots on the floor stands in the way of the Wildcats and a Sweet 16 matchup with Mountain West champion San Diego State on Thursday.

If appearance — relaxed, joking, confident, playful — is any indication, the Johnson that met with the media on Saturday should play quite well in his team’s biggest game this season.

“I think when you get a kid like Nick or Brandon coming from a program like Findlay Prep, the transition to Arizona isn’t as big for them as some others,” Miller said. “They played a national schedule in high school. They have traveled. Their everyday environment of living away from home is different from a kid at a regular high school.

“Our season hasn’t been a completely smooth ride with Brandon going down, but when you have someone like Nick as your true leader, it makes things much easier.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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