Team concept pays off for Arizona

LOS ANGELES -- When you're putting together a puzzle, it's hard to remove one piece, hold it up on its own, and claim that it's the most valuable piece.

After all, what is that piece really worth without the surrounding pieces attached to it to make it whole?

Most coaches dream of having a team that plays as one -- connected like the pieces of a puzzle -- with each piece as valuable as the next. But that's not the way it usually works in basketball where there's often a star system and a hierarchy in place.

No one knows that balancing act better than Phil Jackson, who won 11 NBA titles with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant during his coaching career. Jackson was one of the many celebrities and athletes on hand to watch No. 1 Arizona beat UCLA, 79-75, Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, and he smiled as he watched the action on the court.

Arizona's unselfish style would have made Jackson's mentor, Tex Winter, smile as well.

Winter was credited as the innovator of the Triangle offense and believed that every pass and cut has a purpose and everything is dictated by the defense. He also believed that egos needed to be checked at the door and was instrumental in getting Jordan and Bryant to understand the importance of trusting their teammates.

There are players talented enough to be stars on Arizona but there are no defined stars. They are a collection of players who have sacrificed individual numbers for a 16-0 record and a No. 1 ranking in the nation.

A big reason for this unselfish style comes from a couple of Pittsburgh-bred point guards who learned early from their coaching fathers the importance of spreading the ball around to your teammates.

Arizona coach Sean Miller, who played point guard at Pittsburgh from 1988 to '92, and Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, who grew up in Pittsburgh and was the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Athlete of the Year in 2010, are mirrors of each other on the court. It's always about making the extra pass to find the open player and making sure everyone on the court is involved.

"Our point guard is unselfish and when you have an unselfish point guard it sometimes can become contagious," Miller said. "The other thing is our newcomers that are young and talented are great people. Great teammates are about winning. We don't deal with the egos or sometimes the selfishness that teams or great individual players can bring to the table."

McConnell, who had eight points and seven assists against UCLA, is a perfect tournament point guard. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior never gets rattled, always makes the right pass and is an extension of the coaching staff on the court.

"People don't care how much they score," McConnell said. "They get the satisfaction of getting the assist and that's rare in college basketball today. I think we all do a great job of finding open players and playing together as a team. I just set up the offense and find open players and they hit the open shots."

McConnell has embraced his leadership role on the team along with Nick Johnson, who had a game-high 22 points on Thursday. Both players gathered their teammates late in the second half after they blew a 13-point lead and were forced to come back to win the game.

"It was big for our team to keep our composure," McConnell said. "Nick's a great leader and we just gathered each other and said we're going to win this game, we just have to execute down the stretch."

Miller has several players on his roster who can play and guard multiple positions but none is as effective and able to adapt as quickly as Johnson. It's hard to make a push for being the best player in the country when you're playing on an unselfish team that spreads the ball around, but Miller wasn't shy about making a strong push for Johnson to be considered for player of the year honors.

"Yes, he should," Miller said when asked if Johnson should be in the conversation. "If you just look at statistics and how he defends and keep in mind he plays three positions. He plays the backup 1, starts at the 2 and many times when Gabe [York] and T.J. are in there with him he plays at the 3. The value that he brings to our team is really amazing."

His value was once again on display Thursday as he hit the go-ahead jumper over Bryce Alford to give Arizona the lead for good and added another free throw down the stretch. Afterward he was greeted by former Wildcats Gilbert Arenas, Luke Walton, Chris Mills and Miles Simon in the locker room. Even off the court, Johnson was unselfish when it came to crediting his performance.

"It starts with our point guard, that's very clear," Johnson said. "He had seven assists tonight. It starts with him and that's contagious. When we have an open man we try to hit him or get one more for our shooter. We're also forcing the ball down low and using our size, but it definitely starts with our point guard."

The Wildcats might be taking some by surprise this season, but the seeds for their unselfishness on the court were planted during offseason workouts and spearheaded by Johnson and McConnell, who knew how close they were to being the team they are now.

"I knew coming into this year we had a great team," Johnson said. "I really used our teams last year and the year before to see what to do and what not to do. We eliminated the stuff that we did bad last year and that's one of the reasons we are where we are right now."

They were reminded of another reason driving them this season as they looked up at the rafters of Pauley Pavilion before the game and then shook the hands of former Wildcats wearing championship rings after the game.

"The way our team is and how close we are off the court, it shows on the court," York said. "We're unselfish and we like to get things done. We all have a common goal and our common goal is to win the national championship. We all know what our goal is."