The Arizona Wildcats fell only to No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 on Monday, but some folks don’t expect them to stop there.
Not without Brandon Ashley, who will undergo foot surgery and miss the rest of the season, leaving the Wildcats with just six proven players for the stretch run and postseason.
“Injury hurts Arizona’s Final Four hopes,” said one linked headline on SI.com.
“Brandon Ashley: Arizona’s Big Blow,” said ESPN.com.
“Unproven players must step up for Arizona to still contend,” said Yahoo.
Meanwhile, Sporting News threw Arizona into the “Kenyon Martin Club,” referring to the Cincinnati standout who broke his leg in the Bearcats’ opener of the 2000 Conference USA tournament; The No. 1 Bearcats lost that game and later exited the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Of course, there was also plenty of Twitter buzz Monday over the names “Angelo Chol” and “Grant Jerrett,” two guys who could slide right into Ashley’s power forward position … had they not opted to leave Arizona last spring.
And, just as Arizona coach Sean Miller and two of his players met the media to discuss all this at McKale Center, clouds formed outside and it turned colder.
It looked bad, felt bad, and sometimes it even sounded bad for the Wildcats.
“It sucks,” guard T.J. McConnell said. “But we’re gonna have to move on.”
They started doing so Monday by holding their first practice without Ashley and, McConnell said, by ignoring suggestions that their season is now doomed.
“We kind of don’t pay attention when people say stuff like that,” McConnell said.
“No one expected us to do as well as we have this year; we kind of just let our play do the talking. People can write what they want and say that we’re not a national championship team, but we’re gonna work hard every day and they can’t take that away from us.”
Center Kaleb Tarczewski said there isn’t anyone in the UA locker room who agrees that they can’t compete for a title now.
“It’s a huge loss for us not to have Brandon for the rest of the season,” Tarczewski said. “But we still feel that even without him, we still have a great team.”
For Miller, as always, the focus “isn’t about national championship or Final Four,” but about improving and staying atop the Pac-12 conference race. Besides, he said, there was never any guarantee the Wildcats would reach the Final Four with Ashley on the floor.
“We just had a lot of good fortune,” Miller said. “We had established ourselves as an excellent basketball team with him and now without him, you’ve already seen our effort level against Cal was great...
“I left that game feeling really good about our team and I know we can play better offensively moving forward. So we already have one game under our belt without Brandon, and I think we’ll be able to organize ourselves and be ready for the next game without him.”
Doing so, however, may not be easy for a team that has only used seven players for key minutes all season.
Miller said the Wildcats would need to find a seventh man for the rotation among forward Matt Korcheck, guard Jordin Mayes and guard Elliott Pitts because of potential fouls or fatigue. The coach ruled out Zach Peters, however, saying the freshman forward is “not ready.”
But Miller said he wasn’t sure if one of the three players would emerge as a regular seventh man or whether the matchups or flow of a game would dictate which one is used.
“I think it could be more circumstantial,” Miller said.
Mostly, though, Miller indicated he would increase minutes to all his current rotation players — especially Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who will now start at small forward while Aaron Gordon moves to power forward.
“We haven’t had anybody play more than 32 minutes …. and there’s 20 players in our conference who have played more than 32 minutes per game so just for that alone you know that each of our players is capable and are willing to play more than 28, 32 minutes per game.
“So if we did nothing different other than just give the players who have played, minus Brandon, more of an opportunity, that’s part of our solution. With that in mind, we know foul trouble and fatigue can certainly weigh against you but we don’t have to do this for 30 games, just nine regular season games and then we’re in the postseason.”
Meanwhile, Ashley will have surgery within “a couple of weeks,” Miller said, after a course of action is chosen. UA continued to characterize Ashley’s issue only as a “foot injury,” indicating it may be more complicated than a simple fracture of his right foot.
Miller, who said “it looks to be broken” after Arizona’s loss at Cal, declined to be more specific Monday.
“It’s a season-ending foot injury and it’s obviously significant,” Miller said. “First and foremost with an injury like that, it’s always about what’s in the best interest of the student athlete and, in this case, what’s in the best interest of Brandon Ashley’s future.
“Right now the next phase is just to determine … there’s different ways of doing surgery but again, which way is going to be in his best interest and that choice is made and he can have the surgery, move forward and have a prosperous career.”
- Although junior guard
- Nick Johnson
- was shown holding his left hand during the Cal game — and there was talk of an injury on the broadcast — Miller said there was nothing wrong.
“I think his wrist is broken in five places,” he said sarcastically. “I think he’s healthy. … I don’t believe he was hurt. Certainly, it’s news to me.”
- Cal guard
- Justin Cobbs
- , who hit the game-winner against Arizona, was named the Pac-12’s Player of the Week. Cobbs averaged 20.0 points and 5.0 assists in games against UA and ASU last week.