Let the Nico Mania begin. Or continue. Or be admired.
Whatever phrase you use, Mannion has been half man and half amazing the last two games. Heck, almost every game as Arizona has moved its record to 8-0 after Friday night’s 92-82 win over Penn in the Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, Calif.
Mannion did it all for Arizona, whether it was through a dribble drive, a driving assist, a floater in the lane or a deep 3-pointer, Mannion was as good as advertised.
He turned into the Can’t Miss Kid.
“The thing about him … Nico over the last two days has been phenomenal,” said UA assistant coach Danny Peters on the post-game radio show. “We’ve mixed some things with him in the middle of the floor on offense. He’s exposed these teams defensively and some of their weaknesses. He’s made some tough shots.”
His move left and step back was one. That floater was another. There were others.
That doesn’t include Thursday night’s high-arching, runner off the glass to get UA win No. 7.
“He’s hit a lot of tough shots around the rim that he practices and works on after practice,” Peters said. “He works on them with our staff and Coach (Sean) Miller works on them with him. Being a former point guard himself, (Miller) has put Nico in some positions here to grow and develop. Our fans have seen him take off (on) offense and defense.”
All true. Now, if the team defense will oblige or progress as Mannion has. For the second consecutive game, Arizona was able to run by opponents (isn’t it fun to watch, by the way?) yet hasn’t been able to completely control its opponent or pull away from it. It didn’t against Pepperdine on Thursday, in allowing 13 3-pointers in a close game. And it didn’t again on Friday in what was a closer game than expected against the Quakers.
Arizona coach Sean Miller said he’s never seen teams get 26 3-pointers in two games against his teams.
“Some of it is our defense,” he said. “We have to get better.”
He said his defense shows “peaks and valleys” but must get better.
What’s clear, however, is “our defense is going to be a big overall factor in our success.”
Peters said some of the difficulty in defending Penn was due in part because of the unique way it plays. Deep threes, patience, cuts, screens and scouting that in a one-day turnaround isn’t easy for a young team let alone a veteran team.
“We definitely have to grow in that area,” Peters said.
For the second consecutive game, Arizona appeared to have the wherewithal to pull away late … only to see Penn close the gap late. At one point – after a double-digit lead – Arizona looked to cruise to the end, then Penn closed to within four. It didn’t help Penn in that it missed key free throws down the stretch to make it an even close game.
Arizona has Mannion to thank for keeping the Quakers away. He hit tough shots and found an important flow to the game or at least one that suited him.
He had a career-high 24 points, hitting 11 of 14 points in what seemed like an effortless performance. Reminded me of Mike Bibby early in his career when he took his basketball-on-a-string dribbling and older-than-he-was-poise and helped UA beat North Carolina in the season opener and Texas later in December.
Mannion has that same presence. He’s shown it a time or two in McKale Center, but he’s really shown it in California. Thursday night’s game winner and then Friday night’s offensive performance, one where every shot he took seemed to go in. In fact, you were surprised when it didn’t.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” Mannion told reporters in Anaheim. “I was trying to make the right plays. I hit a couple and started to feel good.”
It helped Arizona ease into an offensive rhythm that continues to do well. It’s flowing well and putting up good numbers.
“Obviously, Nico Mannion was spectacular,” Miller said. “He hit a couple of stretches there where the defense was at his mercy.”