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Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports

Arizona looks part of title contender in beat down of Texas Southern

Casey Sapio/USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats narrowly missed a trip to the Final Four last season when they lost in overtime to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, and although the Wildcats lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson to the NBA, they came back even stronger this season. Arizona (32-3, 16-2 Pac-12) earned a No. 1 seed in the West Region, and the Wildcats looked the part of a national title contender in a demolition of Texas Southern on Thursday.

The arrival on campus of stud freshman Stanley Johnson helped make up for the loss of Gordon, and Johnson had 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting overall and 4-of-5 from three against Texas Southern. Johnson is the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season at 14.3 points per game, and he’s a potential top five pick in the upcoming draft.

Another potential first-round pick, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, had a huge opening-round game as well. Hollis-Jefferson scored a team-high 23 points on 7-of-9 shooting, getting to the free throw line 10 times while also grabbing 10 boards.

All five Arizona starters scored in double figures, with Pac-12 Tournament MVP Brandon Ashley adding 14 points. Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury last year, an injury that may have cost the Wildcats a national title. With Ashley back for this go-round, Arizona is that much more dangerous.

While the Wildcats have plenty of offensive weapons, they’re best known for their stingy defense. Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson are two of the best defenders in the country and two of the biggest reasons why Arizona is sixth in the country in defensive rating, according to Sports-Reference.com. The Wildcats have given up just 85.9 points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor, and 86.1 with Hollis-Jefferson on the court.

Those two stud wing defenders will have their hands full on Saturday when they face the Ohio State Buckeyes with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. That’s because those two will be the primary defenders on D’Angelo Russell, the Buckeyes stud freshman guard. Russell was dynamite in an overtime victory over VCU on Thursday, pouring in 28 points. Russell is a potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, and watching him go up against two elite defenders in Johnson and Hollis-Jefferson will be quite the treat.

If Arizona can get past Russell and Ohio State, a date with either Xavier or Georgia State awaits. And past that, a likely rematch of last year’s Elite Eight against Wisconsin, although I’m sure North Carolina or Arkansas will have something to say about that.

Either way, we should expect to see a deep run from Arizona. Vegas certainly expects it, as the Wildcats have the second-best odds to win the tournament at 15/2, per Bovada. The only team with better odds is, of course, Kentucky, who dominated its opening-round game against Hampton.

 

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