It is a testament to how good Arizona has been for so long that today, Feb. 3, is the first in which it is appropriate to talk about what they canít do, what they donít have, what adjustments they need to make.
It is also, of course, a testament to Brandon Ashley.
On Saturday night, the best and most balanced team in the country lost its first game of the season. It did so at Cal in a brutal shooting performance that persisted until the final minute, when guard Nick Johnson earned a great 15-foot look at a go-ahead bucket and just plain missed. Calís Justin Cobbs took a much more difficult shot on the other end -- a 17-foot step-back baseline jumper over Kaleb Tarczewski -- and banged it. Cal fans stormed the court with time on the clock, Mike Montgomery screamed at them like a frustrated high school dean of discipline and then Cal fans stormed the court again, joyously and officially, when the clock said zero.
[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezNick
Johnson and Arizona finally fell, but the Wildcats -- even with the loss of Brandon Ashley -- are still set up to be a championship contender.
All of this was very fun. It was also no big deal to Arizona. The Wildcats shot horribly and lost a conference game on the road in the final minute; these things happen. In a vacuum, Sean Miller would have left that game feeling fine. No thinking fanís impression of Arizona would have changed. But Arizonaís loss was much greater than any single game. It lost Ashley, its starting power forward, to a broken foot that ended his season.
Millerís immediate pessimism after the game Saturday proved prescient. Now he and the Wildcats have to figure out exactly what to do without one of their most important players. They have to find out whether a team without Ashley can be as good as one with him.
There is some good news. If there is one position the Wildcats could afford an injury to, it is the frontcourt. Losing either point guard T.J. McConnell or All-American-level shooting guard Johnson would leave Miller with a gaping hole in his rotation. Losing Ashley still leaves the Wildcats with one of the best centers in the country (Tarczewski) and one of the most athletic, active forwards (freshman Aaron Gordon).
But thatís also kind of the downside: Being bigger and more physical and more active in the paint is exactly the thing that has separated Arizona from most of the countryís national title contenders. And not only was Ashley great around the rim and on the glass, his ability to step outside and make spot-up shots (his second most-frequent play type, according to Synergy) kept the Wildcats from becoming too crowded and bogged down. It kept a strength from morphing into a weakness.
On Saturday night, Miller said his staff needs to get back to the proverbial drawing board and "make sure we can move forward if Brandon is not with us." That if is now when. So what will that entail?
It appears Miller has two options. The first is a simple insertion of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizonaís other hyper-athletic freshman, and maybe moving Gordon to the power forward spot. The problem with this is that both players do similar things, and neither spaces the floor like Ashley. (Cal all but begged Gordon to shoot Saturday night. He usually demurred.) The other option is Gabe York, the Wildcats' best 3-point shooter. York forces defenses to be honest out to the 3-point line, but heís also 6-foot-3 and offers little in the way of penetration. The latter option might make Arizonaís offense more efficient, its personnel less redundant. But it could cost the Wildcats their identity.
The answer is not cut and dry, of course; Miller will play a combination of lineups, just as he has all season. Situation and opponent will often dictate the decision, and adjustments will be made. Still, just because Arizona lost a player at a loaded position doesnít mean the injury wonít profoundly change its season.