Brandon Ashley’s Foot Injury and the Long-Term Impact on ArizonaPosted by Andrew Murawa on February 2nd, 2014
Arizona lost late Saturday night at California; you probably know that by now. With Syracuse’s win over Duke that kept the Orange undefeated, the Wildcats will likely drop out of the top spot in the national polls for the first time in months (a move which is fated even if it isn’t necessarily mandatory – we’ll get to this point briefly at the bottom of the post). But a single tough road conference loss on the first weekend in February is absolutely nothing to worry about. What is very much something to worry about is the fact that the Wildcats played the final 38 minutes of that game on Saturday night without Brandon Ashley. According to postgame comments by head coach Sean Miller, Ashley landed awkwardly on his foot and things do not look good. Expectations are that x-rays will reveal it is broken, with the severity of the break the only difference between Ashley certainly being done for the year or possibly back in action at less than 100 percent sometime in March. Much like Spencer Dinwiddie’s injury last month, this sucks.
Ashley is the team’s third-leading scorer and rebounder, the starting forward who, down the stretch of tight games, has proven himself to be the team’s second-best option to get hoops. He can score in and around the paint; he can step out and hit the mid-range jumper; he’s a good and willing passer; he’s a load on the screen-and-roll or pick-and-pop; and he’s good at drawing fouls and a capable shooter once there, stroking better than 75 percent from the line. And all of that is without even getting into his defense. His long arms and quick feet help Arizona switch on just about everything; he can bang with big guys down low or harass wings on the perimeter. In short, this is not the type of guy you can replace on the fly in the middle of the season. And given the fact that Miller has more or less been rolling out a seven-man rotation all season, it’s not like there is experienced depth ready to slide into his spot.
But, while acknowledging that this is a huge loss (assuming he’s done for the year), let’s not count out the Wildcats just yet. The good thing about that seven-man rotation they were running is that it was and still is versatile. Aaron Gordon has been playing the three and he’s been fine there, but he’ll be as good, if not better, sliding over and playing the four. He’s not a polished jump shooter (understatement alert), so moving into the four allows him the opportunity to more easily take bigs off the bounce. He’ll be involved in more pick-and-rolls (and looked great in that spot on Saturday night) and the odds are that his already frequent highlight-reel finishes will increase in number. Odds are also high that freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson slides in at the three, and while he certainly can’t shoot the ball well either, he’s a terrific defender and a slashing wing with big upside. The other option is to go a bit smaller by sliding Gabe York into a three-guard lineup, something the Wildcats are going to be forced to do on a more regular basis (Arizona used a three-guard lineup in only eight percent of possessions over the last five games, per KenPom). Senior Jordin Mayes is going to have to see his minutes increase. And, it is time to get acquainted with 6’10” junior forward Matt Korcheck, who has played all of 45 minutes this season, and will need to be able to provide spot minutes at times. Also note that guys like T.J. McConnell and Kaleb Tarczewski stepped up their offensive games in the absence of Ashley on Saturday night, something they’re capable of continuing to do.
But, time to get down to brass tacks: If Ashley is done for the year, are the Wildcats still a national title contender? The Wildcats have gotten to where they’re at this year largely on the strength of a suffocating defense — a squad that collects defensive rebounds without fail; a squad that challenges almost every shot in part because they were switching almost every screen; a squad that is capable of playing solid defense without fouling. They were already one of the tallest teams in the nation (15th tallest, according to KenPom’s effective height stat – which doesn’t even account for the length of Ashley and Gordon’s arms), and, while they’ve had some trouble scoring in Pac-12 play recently, they had a pair of players in Ashley and Nick Johnson in whom they could trust to give the ball in late-game situations. Minus Ashley, the team’s defensive versatility takes a big hit. Free throw percentage will take a dive as guys like Gordon (44.9%) and Hollis-Jefferson (61.9%) are going to see the line more often. And of course, Arizona is going to be more susceptible to foul trouble and god forbid they see another injury. So, yes, they’ve taken quite a hit. But, now instead of having seven very good players in their rotation, they’ve got six very good players and a couple of guys who are going to need to just provide solid minutes. Come March, a six-man rotation is doable. All told, where the Wildcats were once a favorite to make the Final Four and a legitimate national title contender, now they’re maybe a tier (or even two) below. We’ll withhold judgment until we see the adjustments that Miller makes, but if Ashley is indeed done, an Arizona national title, while still possible, would be a surprise.
Now, quickly, one last point. Let’s pretend for a second that Ashley had just sprained his foot last night and was going to be out for a week. In that case, when I submitted my RTC Top 25 ballot on Sunday afternoon, I would have left Arizona at the #1 spot and Syracuse at the #2, something that probably not many other people would have even considered. Why would losing a road conference game on a miracle almost-buzzer-beater without arguably their second-best player automatically result in the Wildcats being bumped down a notch? I thought they were the best team in the nation on Saturday morning, why would I not on Sunday morning? They’ve proven themselves with better wins than Syracuse has had, and they’ve played a much tougher schedule both in and out of conference play. Why drop them just because they lost one game? Well, all that went out the window with Ashley’s injury. That is the thing that makes me question Arizona more on Sunday morning than I did on Saturday morning. There is still a chance that Sean Miller figures out some way to make this work, so even though they only slip to #2 for the time being, we’ll definitely need to keep an eye on how the Wildcats react over the coming weeks.