Dec 25, 2012; Honolulu, HI, USA; Arizona Wildcats players celebrate after defeating the San Diego State Aztecs 68-67 in the final round of the Diamond Head Classic. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Takeaways From Arizona Winning Diamond Head Classic

 Arizona Wildcats

Nick Johnson is Arizona’s best player. Mark Lyons is the team’s quintessential leader and Solomon Hill is an across-the-board stat sheet stuffer, but Johnson is the bona fide best player on these Wildcats. When evaluating and comparing players, especially guards, defense is largely undervalued or altogether ignored in the equation. Not after Tuesday night’s triumph in Hawaii. Johnson put out an early nominee for defensive play of the year, ranging across the lane and skying from behind to swat Chase Tapley’s last-second, game-winning layup attempt. Johnson, by no measure, had a great game. He was 3-of-13 shooting from the floor, 1-of-6 from long range, didn’t record an assist and struggled defending Tapley all night. But he’s the team’s most skilled and physically able player, blessed with gifted leaping ability, natural play-making instincts and an assassin’s mentality which allowed him to deliver in the clutch again.

Dec 25, 2012; Honolulu, HI, USA; Arizona Wildcats guard Nick Johnson (13) blocks the shot of San Diego State Aztecs guard Chase Tapley (22) in the final round of the Diamond Head Classic. Arizona beat San Diego State 68-67. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

The Cats need to play fast. Arizona likes to speed up the game. This is no secret. But the Cats have been stuck in third gear to this point in the season, largely because their opponents have consciously slowed the game down. Sean Miller’s team has played the 119th fastest [or 228th slowest] pace in the nation, despite being loaded with athletes up and down its roster. Zona struggled in the half court against San Diego State’s stingy D in Tuesday’s championship game, gleaning nearly half of its points in transition or on second and third chances. Until Arizona settles into a more settled and structured offensive system, scoring on the break will have to be a priority. The Cats have enough defensive game-changers to make that goal feasible.

Young bigs improving. Grant Jarrett has offered next to nothing in a reserve role—and little change for the better has been evident since early November—but Arizona’s two other highly touted, freshman bigs are making improvements to their games, some more noticeable than others. Brandon Ashley is developing as a rebounder, especially on the offensive end, and is establishing himself as a more active presence on the block. Ashley likes to play away from the basket and is most effective in transition, but he’s becoming increasingly comfortable playing around the rim and throwing his weight around with wider bodies inside. Kaleb Tarczewski, meanwhile, is progressing more discreetly. The freshman pivot is better at reading double-downs in the post, choosing now to dribble out of the double team and spot the open man cross-court rather than simply kicking it out to an adjacent guard. Staying out of foul trouble will be key in Tarc’s development.

Parrom is here to stay. Some questioned (count me as one of them) whether Parrom’s hot start was sustainable, specifically his much improved perimeter shot. Looks like it is. The senior has blossomed from a non-descript bench player into one of the premiere sixth men in college basketball. His accuracy from the perimeter has starkly progressed (up 12 percentage points from last season) and his willingness to shoot from behind the arc has grown even more (Parrom is averaging close to three 3-point shot attempts per game this year, roughly double his rate from last season).  His free throwing shooting has magically transformed from subpar to outstanding—in a short sample size, mind you—and he’s become a more valuable asset on the boards. Credit the influx of freshmen big men for that.

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