Arizona junior guard Nick Johnson and Arizona State sophomore guard Jahii Carson have a long history of playing against each other in the Grand Canyon State. Nick went to Gilbert Highland High School while Jahii played his high school basketball at Mesa High School. The schools are about seven miles apart.
Coach Sean Miller’s first signature recruiting class came in 2011 when he snagged the five-star guard Johnson. Carson then committed to Arizona State to continue to play against his high school foe. Carson was forced to sit out a year due to academic ineligibility, but the two squared off for the first time last season with the ‘Cats prevailing in both meetings.
Both players were recruited very differently to their respective schools. Carson was recruited to be the new face of Arizona State basketball and was the highest prospect the school had seen since James Harden. Johnson was Sean Miller’s first five-star commit, and was another piece to the rebuilding puzzle that Miller was assembling in his first years on the job. These top commits are what are expected at elite programs like Arizona, while they are rarer at Arizona State.
A popular argument between Wildcats and Sun Devils is who the better player between Johnson and Carson is. Johnson averages 12.3 PPG for his career compared to Carson’s 18.3. Keep in mind that includes Johnson’s freshman year of scoring 9.0 points per game, as Carson averaged 40.0 minutes on the bench for ASU sitting out the season. Johnson is known as a lockdown defender, while Carson is known much more for his scoring ability being able to shoot the outside shot and get to the rim with tremendous ball handling and good use of his body. However, Johnson has grown as a scorer every year for Arizona, and is now the go-to guy at the end of games for the top-ranked Wildcats.
Johnson has emerged as the leader of this young Wildcat team. He is just about everything you want in a college basketball player: he can score, defend, and rebound. He is also fantastic in transition, where he displays his amazing athletic leaping ability, earning the nickname “Bunnies.” He is an outstanding teammate and has become a fan favorite in the McKale Center. Sporting News even has Johnson as a First-Team Midseason All-American.
Carson plays on a much less talented team, but has done a nice job given his situation. Sitting out his first year in Tempe really hurt the Sun Devils as they went 10-21. Last year, Carson’s Devils went 21-12, a vast improvement yet not enough for an NCAA Tournament bid. This year, they are looking like a bubble team. If they can get some big conference wins and make some noise in the Pac-12 tournament, Jahii could find himself in his first big dance.
Tonight, Johnson and Carson will clash head to head for the first time this season, both the undisputed leaders of their teams. The Wildcats (17-0, 4-0) look to extend their best start in school history versus their archrival Arizona State Sun Devils (13-4, 2-2). While most eyes will be on Nick and Jahii, there are other intriguing matchups in the game:
The Transfers: Arizona State swiped shooting guard Jermaine Marshall from Penn State, while Arizona gained point guard T.J. McConnell from Duquesne. It will be interesting to see how these “new guys” do in their first game in the rivalry. McConnell has been outstanding, leading the Wildcats offensive attack and pestering opposing play-callers on defense. Marshall has been a reliable outside shooter for the Sun Devils and averages 15.6 PPG.
The (Really) Big Boys: Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski is a true seven footer, and usually does not face anyone his size. He will square up against Arizona State center Jordan Bachynski, a 7’2” human skyscraper and the nation’s leading shot blocker. Arizona has been fantastic in their play in the paint, using size to their advantage. Bachynski will be tough to shoot over in the low post, but Arizona State does not have another starter any taller than 6’7”. Look for Arizona forwards Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon to attack the rim, utilizing strength and ball movement versus a smaller Arizona State team.
The Guys in the Ties: The Sun Devils actually lead the series the past 13 games, 7-6. However, Lute Olson went 43-6 versus ASU and Sean Miller is currently 6-2, but interim coaches Kevin O’Neill and Russ Pennell went 0-5. Coach Miller is one of the best young coaches in all of college basketball and is building something special in Tucson. On the other side of the scorer’s table, Herb Sendek may be feeling some warmth in his cushion. Arizona State recently hired new Athletic Director Ray Anderson who could be looking for some change. Sendek is barely .500 in his seven years at the helm and only one Tournament appearance to show. He needs a signature win (like beating the #1 team) to keep the hot seat to simmer.
The Future: This rivalry game has much more than Territorial Cup bragging rights on the line. The Wildcats want to keep their undefeated season intact as well as their number one ranking. There are always a good amount of NBA scouts at every Arizona home game because of their spectacular talent. It is no secret that freshman sensation Aaron Gordon is probably NBA-bound after this season. With scouts on hand, look for Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to try to push their values above the rim. On the flip side, many projections have Bachynski as a mid to late second rounder, so look for him to show off his skills as well. Not to mention the scouts will have their eyes on two other phenomena:
Nick Johnson and Jahii Carson.
The two have crossed paths many times throughout their careers, and tonight they will be featured on the biggest stage thus far. But do not be surprised if these two stars match up again in the next few years as professional athletes.
Not too shabby for a couple of high school kids from the Phoenix area.
Watch a video of Johnson and Carson goofing around as high school seniors right here.