Of all the headaches Sean Miller has dealt with during five years of rebuilding the Arizona Wildcats, injuries usually haven’t been among them.
There was the Kevin Parrom saga of 2011-12 — including a gunshot wound and broken foot. There was also that busted pinkie that Derrick Williams all but ignored on the road to the 2011 Elite Eight, and a few temporary things for other players.
Nothing too insurmountable.
At Xavier, that wasn’t the case. In Miller’s second season as coach, in 2005-06, the Musketeers bolted out to a 12-2 start through late January. A few weeks later, they lost leading scorer and rebounder Brian Thornton for the season with a complex ankle injury.
The Musketeers went 3-3 to close out the regular season without him, finishing 17-11. The team headed into the Atlantic 10 tournament with little hope of an NCAA tournament at-large bid.
“We had different people take on different roles,” Miller said. “We changed our offense to fit a new team, and there’s no doubt that sometimes we felt the effects of not having him depth-wise, rebounding-wise.”
Still, the Musketeers managed to sweep through the Atlantic-10 tournament to earn the automatic bid, then took third-seeded Gonzaga and Adam Morrison down to the wire in Salt Lake City, losing by only four points.
It worked out in the end.
On a different scale, Miller will try to do the same with the Wildcats, who lost forward Brandon Ashley for the season with a significant foot injury last Saturday at Cal.
The Wildcats are in a much less difficult position than Xavier was in 2006 — they are hardly in danger of not making the NCAA tournament — but still require Miller to again rejigger both the offense and player roles in order to meet the expectations that Arizona’s 21-0 start created.
“We’re going to do the best we can,” Miller said. “These are our circumstances, and we’ve been fortunate to go through 21 games relatively healthy. So now can we finish what we’ve started, deal with some adversity, and have some players that are already in our program step up and have either a bigger role or produce more. I think that can happen.”
In Pac-12 games, Brandon Ashley averaged 30.1 minutes, 11.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. His length and quickness was also valuable on the defensive end.
Here’s one breakdown of how those numbers ideally could be replaced, starting tonight when Arizona hosts Oregon:
(Note: “Then” refers to stats from Pac-12 games before Ashley was hurt . “Now” represents the ideal projected numbers without him, which cumulatively make up for Ashley’s production.)
Minutes Points Rebounds
Player Then/Now Then/Now Then/Now Now what
Nick Johnson 32.6/35.5 17.8/19.3 3.3/3.8 Johnson’s go-to role won’t change significantly, but his jump-shooting will be more critical than ever, since Ashley was an emerging force as a pick-and-pop guy
and outside shooter. Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson don’t have the perimeter punch that defenses respect, but Johnson does.
Aaron Gordon 31.3/36.0 11.0/13.0 8.3/9.3 Good thing for the Wildcats that Gordon’s “motor” runs nonstop. Now it can’t afford to turn off. Simply put, the Wildcats need Gordon’s energy inside as much as
possible. He won’t start at small forward anymore — that role goes to Hollis-Jefferson — but Miller says his role won’t change, meaning he’ll continue to create
havoc around the basket and play rugged defense on forwards of all sizes. The Wildcats, of course, will be happy if his mid-range and outside shots develop,
because, until then, defenses aren’t likely to worry much about them.
T.J. McConnell 31.8/35.0 8.4/8.9 4.5/4.8 The Wildcats mostly need more of the same from their steady, rugged point guard, though McConnell will have more of a challenge running the offense. He won’t
have Ashley’s versatility to score from a variety of places. As much as ever, McConnell will need to take every open look he gets to help keep defenses honest. He
did just that at Cal, keeping the Wildcats in the game with 6-for-12 shooting in a game where he did not record an assist.“That doesn’t happen very often,”
McConnell said of his assists output at Cal. “The way they were playing us on defense, they were kind of sagging off a little bit, and when I drove, they went out and
guarded everyone else and kind of forced me to shoot. It was that type of game. They did a good job of scouting us.”
Kaleb Tarczewski 27.3/33.5 8.0/9.5 5.9/6.9 Tarczewski received a sneak preview of how heavily he will now be leaned on at Cal, playing 35 minutes while scoring 18 points and grabbing six rebounds.
He managed to make 12 of 12 free throws, moving his team-high free-throw percentage to 88.9 in Pac-12 games. “Zeus” says he likes the idea of more 35-minute
types of nights. “I love that, being out there on the court,” he said. “It kind of gets you an opportunity to get a feel for the game. … It’s obviously not the
situation that we wanted, but it’s a situation on the team everyone is fine with, and I have no doubt everyone will step up and play the role they need to.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson 22.6/30.5 6.1/9.0 5.4/6.0 With athleticism, ranginess and a hell-bent style of driving to the basket, Hollis-Jefferson is a different player than Ashley, so here’s where many of Miller’s
offensive tweaks may be needed. He’s not as versatile a scorer as Ashley, getting most of his points around the basket, but will be needed to fill in at small
forward. Defenses will be aiming to stop his penetration.
Gabe York 17.5/22.2 6.6/7.5 1.5/1.8 Other than sliding Hollis-Jefferson inside or using Matt Korcheck in spot situations, the Wildcats don’t have any more options in the frontcourt if fouls, fatigue or
injuries affect Gordon and Tarczewski. But the Wildcats can squish the lineup the other way, with York joining McConnell and Johnson in three-guard lineups in
some situations. Whatever the case, York will be needed for more minutes and to take all the good shots he can, though defenses will try to no let him
find many. He was hitting 38.7 percent of his threes in Pac-12 games before Ashley was hurt.
Matt Korcheck 4.0*/4.0 1.0/2.0 1.5/1.5 Korcheck has only played in 10 games this season, but has the kind of skills and experience with UA’s system that suggests he won’t be overwhelmed in spot
*Played in only two of UA’s first eight Pac-12 games situations. He’s actually a fourth-year college player — he played at Cochise College in Douglas for two seasons, then sat out last season at UA while playing
against guys like Tarczewski every day. Plus he’s 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds. “Matt’s just a really hard worker. He’s willing to do anything for the team,” Tarczewski
said. “He’s a big body. He’s quick, strong and he’s willing to get down in the post and really battle for position and play defense and contest shots. I think he’s
going to be a good addition moving forward.”
Jordin Mayes 3.5/4.0 1.0/2.0 0.8/1.0 It’s become ritual at UA to wait for Mayes to reemerge in the postseason, after his career-best run as a freshman in 2010-11 and his strong finish last season.
Now the Wildcats hope he can movee that timetable up a bit. Mayes has been holding his own defensively — enough to stay on the fringe of Miller’s rotation all
season — but the Wildcats would be even better off if he could find that perimeter jumper out there somewhere.
Elliott Pitts 3.0*/3.0 2.0/2.0 0.0/0.5 Pitts and Mayes may become an either/or situation for the Wildcats, who can go with either one to fill out minutes in the backcourt. Pitts has played in only eight
*Played in only one of UA’s first eight Pac-12 games games this season, but has drawn praise for his work ethic and promises to help on future UA teams, if not this one. “It’s almost unfair to say to Matt and Elliott,
‘Just get in there’ without any experience, but that’s college basketball,” McConnell said. “They’re gonna have to be ready. I know they’re going to be ready and
we’re going to give them the confidence to be ready as well.”