Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 11/30/11

PITTSBURGH - FEBRUARY 1: Forward Nick Johnson #42 of the Pittsburgh Penguins trips over the stick of forward Jason Pominville #29 of the Buffalo Sabres in the third period on February 1, 2010 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh defeated Buffalo 5-4. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
TUCSON -- Arizona's Nick Johnson is growing up quickly. The Wildcats can't afford that he won't. He's that important. In fact, Miller said earlier this week, Johnson was the "most ready" freshman he had on his roster. He stated it again on Tuesday night. "He's a really big piece to this year's team," said Miller over the weekend. "As he gets to be more settled, I think he'll be one of the best freshmen in the Pac-12." Tuesday, he was the best freshman in the state of New Mexico. Save for a missed dunk in the first half one he gave a quick smile to right after he was solid all night. Poised. Assured. Aggressive. Maybe fellow freshman Josiah Turner will get there soon, although he did have a season-best 12 points and his second consecutive strong game. Freshman Angelo Chol might in a year or two. Sidiki Johnson? Well, Arizona showed it can win without him as he continues to be suspended and likely will be until the end of the semester. And then, who knows? As for Nick Johnson, time will tell when it comes to the Pac-12 and his performances. First, he and Arizona must get through what has been a tough preseason. Even New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies said he admired Miller's "intestinal fortitude" in going to the Pan American Center to play. NMSU has a hard time getting big name, non-conference opponents to go to Las Cruces. Arizona got tough physically and mentally to weather the crowd and a nearly five-hour bus drive to get the 83-76 win. UA drove up on Monday. Miller called it his most "fulfilling" victory of the early season, adding it was the "best win of the season" as the Wildcats moved to 5-2 overall. His reasoning was clear: Arizona went into a tough place to play and got the gut-check victory after losing a game at home to San Diego State. It shot its best percentage of the season (52 percent) and stayed close in the rebounding department, something Miller said needed to happen if the team had a chance to win. Arizona was just one rebound short, 38-37. It also held NMSU to 38 percent from the floor, including 0 for 14 from the 3-point line for anyone not named Wendell McKines, who was 4 of 7 from beyond the arc but his teammates 0 for 14. "Our game plan was to do the best we can to crowd the paint," said Miller. "Right now, we have death by inches in terms of size at every position. But we negated that tonight, by handling the ball and doing a great job on offense." Arizona will be measured in small growth spurts. And UA needs every inch now that Miller has opted to go with a smaller lineup. Miller promised there would be a change in the starting lineup. He made good by taking center Kyryl Natyazhko out and moving Johnson in. Johnson finished with a team-high-tying 34 minutes. He averages 24 minutes a game. Without Johnson, it's hard to fathom Arizona beating NMSU. Johnson made the most of his first start of the season, finishing with a season-high 19 points, hitting 8 of 14 shots. "He practices like he played in the game," said Miller on his postgame show. "I thought he showed a lot of poise for a freshman playing in this type of environment. He made big plays. And can think of more plays where he was on the fringe of not just having a good night but a great night. He's a big part of our future, a big part of our program. I'm sure glad we have him." Notable Natyazhko played just eight minutes but he was effective. Earlier this week, Miller said, "he's either going to have to improve and get the job done in his third year with us, or we're going to have to move in another direction." It looks like Natyazhko got the message, sort of. He had four points but only one rebound. "That's kind of what we are looking for," Miller said. "He contributed and made shots. He can shoot the 15 footer. And let's face it, any time we can play somebody big it can really help us."
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