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March 10, 2014

Arizona dominates Pac-12 awards list

The best team in the Pac-12 Conference can now officially say it has the top player, coach and freshman.

Arizona cleaned up in awards as Nick Johnson earned player of the year honors, Sean Miller was named coach of the year and Aaron Gordon was tabbed the top first-year player, in a vote taken by the league's coaches and announced Monday.

The regular-season champions were represented by two players on the conference's 10-man first team, including Gordon, who was the lone freshman on the team. Point guard T.J. McConnell landed on the five-man second team.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson joined Gordon on the all-freshman team, while Johnson and McConnell landed on the five-man all-defensive team.

"You always say to the players that the individual accolades will follow (team success)," Miller said. "It's really nice to see that come true today."

Johnson, who is in the running for all three major national player of the year awards, averaged a team-high 16.1 points - good for eighth in the Pac-12 - to go with 4.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists. The junior topped the 20-point mark 10 times - including a career-high 25 at Oregon State last Wednesday.

The Gilbert, Ariz., native is the eighth conference player of the year in UA history, joining Sean Elliott (1987-88 and 1988-89), Chris Mills (1992-93), Damon Stoudamire (1994-95), Mike Bibby (1997-98), Jason Terry (1998-99) and Derrick Williams (2010-11).

"It's a great honor, obviously, just to be in that category," Johnson said. "I couldn't ask for anything more."

He added that is goal was to win the defensive player of the year as opposed to the overall player of the year in the league.

Defensively, Johnson took on the assignment of guarding the opposing team's top perimeter player and collected 1.2 steals per game.

"Nick's meaning to our team success - I can't put a value on it," Miller said.

His efforts helped the Wildcats finish 28-3 - including 15-3 in conference play - and secure the second Pac-12 championship in Miller's five seasons in Tucson, and the first since 2010-11. Miller's pack-line defense allowed 70 or more points just twice as opponents averaged 58.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting.

Both averages rank in the nation's top 10, helping the Wildcats win the league by three games over second-place UCLA.

Miller also guided UA to 21 consecutive wins to open the season, highlighted by two months with the No. 1 ranking in the country, and a perfect 18-0 mark at home. He kept the Wildcats on track after Brandon Ashley's season-ending foot injury to open February.

It is Miller's second coach of the year honor, and first since 2010-11.

"It's great for him," Johnson said. "He definitely deserves it. As a team, all three of these awards are team awards."

Gordon, who headlined the Pac-12 all-freshman team, ranked second on the Wildcats in scoring (12.3 points) and led the way in rebounding (7.8 boards). His 2.6 offensive rebounds ranked fourth-best in the Pac-12.

The 6-9 forward is Arizona's seventh league freshman of the year, joining Elliott (1985-86), Bibby (1996-97), Michael Wright (1998-99), Salim Stoudamire (2001-02), Chase Budinger (2006-07) and Williams (2009-10).

"I woke up to a bunch of congratulatory texts and it just really warms my spirit," Gordon said.

Gordon is one of six finalists for the Wayman Tisdale national freshman of the year award, but Miller was a bit surprised to learn that he did not make the all-defensive team

Hollis-Jefferson's nonstop energy sparked the UA bench - although he also started five games - and the 6-7 forward averaged 8.6 rebounds and 5.5 rebounds.

"Not only one of the best freshmen in our conference," Miller said, "but I think Rondae has established himself as one of the best freshmen in the country."

McConnell gave Miller the consummate point guard he never had. After sitting out a season following his transfer from Duquesne, McConnell helped make the Wildcats an efficient offensive team.

The 6-1 junior averaged 8.3 points, 5.5 assists and posted a slightly better than 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to lead the conference. His 1.8 steals ranked third-best in the conference.

"I think the coaches in our conference recognize his value," Miller said of McConnell, who has been a steady presence without the eye-popping numbers. "He just makes the game easier for his teammates."

Among the surprises, or at least worthy arguments, was the omission of Kaleb Tarczewski. The 7-foot center shot 58.3 percent - including 58.1 percent from the floor in 18 Pac-12 games to lead the league. The sophomore averaged 10.2 points and 6.7 rebounds, both of which are up from his freshman season.

But Tarczewski's biggest improvement came at the free-throw line, jumping from 63.3 percent on 98 attempts last season to 76.2 percent on 122 attempts in 2013-14.

"You want to be even greedier. I would have loved to have Kaleb as a part of something," Miller said. "I think he was in the running for most improved, he was in the running for all-defensive team, and might have been close to becoming an all-conference player.

Perhaps more glaring was that Gordon, possibly more complete on the defensive end than the offensive end, was left off the all-defensive team.

Miller even assumed his star freshman made the team before learning in the press conference that it was McConnell who was the second Wildcat honored. Still, he did not see a problem outside of the number of limited spots.

"Wow, I didn't realize that," Miller said. "I thought Aaron was a part of that.

"We could've easily put four guys on that team. ... But for T.J. and Nick to receive that award is very gratifying.

"Aaron and Kaleb could've clearly been a part of that as well. Can't put everybody on."

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Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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