TUCSON, Ariz. — The loss of Brandon Ashley to a foot injury sent Arizona scrambling.
The sophomore forward was one of the second-ranked Wildcats’ best and most versatile players, so making up for his contributions was going to put players in new roles and require everyone on the team to do just a little more.
Two games is a small sampling size, but Arizona seems to be doing just fine without Ashley so far.
“We’re not going to be able to replace Brandon,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We’re going to have to do it as a team and there are things that we have to try to emphasize more now that he’s not a part of what we’re doing and maybe emphasize some things less. We’re working through that as a coaching staff and a team.”
Arizona was a nearly unstoppable force with Ashley in the lineup, setting a school record with 21 straight wins while spending two months at No. 1.
Ashley injured his right foot while going up for a rebound early against California on Feb. 1 and the Wildcats went on to lose that game, along with the No. 1 ranking two days later.
Arizona (23-1, 10-1 Pac-12) had some jittery moments in its first game without Ashley last Thursday against Oregon, playing a bit disoriented offensively without the sophomore forward. The Wildcats managed to pull out the 67-65 victory behind their defense, forcing the Ducks into a big turnover and a difficult tying shot attempt in the final minute.
Arizona looked much more free and easy against Oregon State on Sunday, again playing solid defensively while finding its shooting touch.
The Wildcats shot 50 percent for the first time in six games, dominated the paint 40-12 and shored up a recent concern by Miller and the coaching staff by out-rebounding the Beavers 39-24. Arizona also had a 15-4 advantage on the offensive glass, leading to 13 points in the 76-54 victory at McKale Center.
“I thought the Oregon game was the best thing that could have happened to us because we didn’t have as much confidence as we did tonight,” Miller said after the win over Oregon State. “It feels different to be out there that first time and we fought and we scratched and we made some big plays, and everybody had a different role, it seemed like. It was almost like once we got through that game, had a couple days to talk about it, to me we were a much more confident group tonight.”
One reason Arizona has had success without Ashley has been attitude.
With Ashley, the Wildcats were considered among the front-runners to win a national championship. Once he went down, they were lumped in with the rest of the good teams, their national title hopes supposedly all but done.
But even without Ashley, Arizona still has a talented team and the players took umbrage to the skepticism about their chances, using it to their advantage.
“I don’t think we had any doubts, but I know a lot of people from the outside doubted us,” said point guard T.J. McConnell. “And that motivated us a lot more.”
Losing Ashley has forced Arizona to change things around a bit.
While Ashley was in the lineup, Aaron Gordon started at small forward, a position he’s more comfortable with. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson had been the sixth man when Ashley was playing, primarily coming in at small forward. He’s since been moved into the starting lineup and been forced to play power forward more than he ever has.
They have both played well, combining for 53 points and 28 rebounds in the two games, and both Gabe York and Elliott Pitts have played well in their expanded roles.
The other big adjustment on the offensive end is the style Arizona plays.
With Ashley on the court, the Wildcats had a full lineup of players who could create their own shots. Long-armed and athletic, Ashley could score off the dribble, at the rim and from the perimeter, and was a good offensive rebounder.
Now that he’s out and players have shifted into new roles, Arizona has had to be a little deliberate with its offense, making sure the Wildcats run the plays and get players into the right positions to be able to score.
“With Brandon, they can play more as a group because you have four, even five players who can score,” Miller said. “Without him, I think we have to control some things a little more on offense.”
Arizona has done well without Ashley for two games. Now, the Wildcats just have to keep it going.