BERKELEY, Calif. — The tight seven-man rotation that led the Arizona Wildcats to a school record 21-0 start is no longer, with the school confirming Sunday that forward Brandon Ashley will miss the rest of the season with a foot injury.
Ashley went down just two minutes into the Wildcats’ 60-58 loss at California on Saturday, and UA coach Sean Miller said afterward it “looks to be broken.” Tests and doctors confirmed Ashley’s condition on Sunday, a UA spokesman said, though it was listed only as a “foot injury” on a release the school issued Sunday evening.
“While we’re all disappointed, we are also aware that Brandon needs our support and positive energy surrounding him,” Miller said in the statement. “Someone once told me, the hottest heat forges the strongest steel. This adversity will ultimately make Brandon and our team stronger moving forward.”
Ashley averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 22 games for the Wildcats this season, and had been playing considerably better on both sides of the ball as a sophomore than as a freshman.
Part of the Wildcats’ versatile frontcourt rotation, Ashley played both power forward and center for the Wildcats, and his loss could prompt Arizona both to go smaller and to ratchet up minutes to other key players.
It is Arizona’s first real bout with adversity all season, with the Wildcats having lost center Kaleb Tarczewski for a pair of games with an ankle sprain suffered at Michigan in December but surviving everything else put in their way.
Of course, still full of confidence after sitting on the No. 1 ranking for a school-record eight weeks — a stint that will end today when Syracuse is expected to take over the throne — the Wildcats insisted Saturday they will be OK even though suspicions were immediate that Ashley would be lost for the long haul.
“It’s going to be a tough hit,” Tarczewski said. “He’s a great player and he really brings a lot of different things to this team. But we have a lot of great players and we’re really going to try to do the best we can without him to become a better team and stronger.”
But it may not be easy to figure out how. UA has used only seven players in close-game situations all season, with guard Jordin Mayes occasionally being sprinkled in, and now there’s just six key players.
The good news for UA is the Wildcats have spread out the work enough that none of them currently average more than 32 minutes a game. So it’s possible they can stay effective up front by increasing the minutes of forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (23.5), Tarczewski (27.0) and possibly Matt Korcheck, who has played in only 10 games.
The Wildcats can also go smaller more often by increasing minutes to Gabe York (18.6). Meanwhile, Mayes (5.1) and Elliott Pitts, who has played in just eight games, will likely get a chance to earn a spot in the new rotation.
“Elliott, Jordin, getting another shooter on the court some, maybe a three-guard lineup, that’s something we have to look at,” Miller said about his options after the Cal game. “But the other thing is Rondae has played 23 minutes a game — he’s capable. Gabe York has played around 18, and he’s certainly capable.
“Kaleb played more (35 minutes against Cal) and that’s going to be part of it too. No one on our team has played more than 32 minutes so we’re now going to become a team where those guys are going to play more and probably go one guy deeper into our bench.”
On Saturday, the Wildcats weren’t quite ready to preview this new life, however. They basically just went with six guys.
Mayes didn’t get in the game at all while Pitts and Korcheck totaled four minutes between them – and the healthy four starters were each leaned on for 35 minutes or more.
But the result of that first effort without Ashley, Miller found, was encouraging enough. Even if go-to guy Nick Johnson was 1 for 14 from the field, leading the Wildcats to 32.3 percent shooting overall.
“I think a lot of the things we’re going to take away from (the Cal) game are positive: playing without one of the key players for us, doing it on the road …” Miller said. “Just like you’re not going to win all 40 games as a team, you’re not going to play great every night.
“So I think when you think about Nick having the game that he had and then Brandon getting hurt, you look at our shooting percentage and ask ourselves, ‘How the world were we there at the end with a chance to win it?’ I think that says a lot about some of the other guys, the heat and the togetherness that our team has.”