Arizona Wildcats guard Jordin Mayes made only five three-pointers during the Pac-12 Conference season, but still managed to have a pretty good time on the court.
The other end of the court, that is.
With his shot off until a recent resurgence that included 2-for-3 three-point shooting against Colorado in the Pac-12 tournament, Mayes said he began to enjoy playing defense this season more than ever before.
"I was pressuring players from the top of the key and when I was stopping them, I started to see that I liked doing it," Mayes said. "I don't remember a specific game, but it was during a series of games that I kept guards out of the paint and holding guys to not shoot as much. Once I started to see that I was playing defense, I started to really like it."
That mentality has arrived just in time for the Wildcats, who will try to slow down Belmont's 38.6-percent three-point shooting in a NCAA tournament second-round game Thursday in Salt Lake City.
No doubt UA cannot rely on Nick Johnson alone to stop the Bruins, who have the 18th-best three-point percentage mark in the country, and Mayes is one of the more likely sources of perimeter help.
Arizona has been allowing opponents to make 36.0 percent of their three-pointers, a mark that ranks just 276th out of 345 Division I teams. The Wildcats also gave up a frightening 37.7 percent of threes in Pac-12 games, which was by far the worst percentage in league play.
But Arizona has allowed just 34.4 percent from three-point territory over its past seven games, which included inspired defensive efforts against Washington (1 of 11 in threes) on Feb. 20 and against UCLA (1 of 12) last Friday in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.
Three other recent signs the Wildcats are healing defensively:
1. Nick Johnson is back. UA's do-everything guard finally put his February illness and slump behind him by playing consistently well on both ends of the court since March 2 at UCLA.
Johnson was asked to defend UCLA point guard Larry Drew II in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals last Friday - one reason Drew went 0 of 5 from the field - and he'll be needed at full strength Thursday to guard Belmont gunner Ian Clark, who takes 6.7 threes a game and hits them at a 46.3 percent rate, tops in the nation.
Johnson was not available for comment early this week, but he said after UA beat Colorado last Thursday in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals that his confidence has returned.
"I think I'm just now getting into my groove," Johnson said. "I'm just trying to come out play well, and hit my open shots."
2. Colorado couldn't find the shots. After Colorado buried 9 of 17 threes during its emotional Feb. 14 win over Arizona in Boulder, the Wildcats reworked their approach during a Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals rematch last Thursday.
Xavier Johnson, who made 4 of 5 threes in Boulder, took only one three-pointer - and made it, of course, as he was 7 for 10 this season against Arizona - in Las Vegas against the Wildcats. And point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was 1 of 4 in threes and 4 of 10 from the field overall.
Colorado made 5 of 12 threes overall but was able to attempt only eight threes through the first 38 minutes of the game.
"Our team did a good job to throw them off when they shot beyond the line," UA senior Solomon Hill said. "One of the threes that Colorado had was toward the end of the game and Askia Booker hit a three, but it was more of a desperation attempt.
"We did a great job, especially keeping Spencer Dinwiddie off the three-point line."
3. Drew was contained. The biggest goal the Wildcats appeared to have before their Pac-12 tournament semifinal game was containing Drew, who had 18 assists to only six turnovers in two previous games against Arizona.
In the Pac-12 tourney, however, Drew had only four assists to two turnovers and missed his five shots from the field while Johnson attempted to muzzle him.
The Wildcats will have to do the same Thursday against Belmont, who, like their Bruin cousins in Los Angeles, have a dynamic point guard in Kerron Johnson and respectable three point shooters at virtually every position.
"With Belmont, every coach looks at their ability to shoot and it's scary," UA coach Sean Miller said. "We have to do a good job in that area, as does every team that plays them."
• What: NCAA tournament
• Who: No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 11 Belmont
• Where: Salt Lake City
• When: 4:20 p.m. Thursday
• TV; radio: TNT; 1290-AM; 107.5-FM