SAN DIEGO — While the Arizona Wildcats spent the better part of February learning to live without Brandon Ashley, the opposite was also true of him.
Neither side had it easy.
But while the Wildcats may have healed, reinventing themselves enough down the stretch to bring a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed into their opener today against Weber State, the same isn’t quite yet true of Ashley.
“I still probably go back and forth sometimes,” Ashley said Thursday, in open-locker room interviews at Viejas Arena. “Like, ‘Damn, did this really happen?’ You never think it’s going to happen to you. But honestly it probably took me like a week.”
The first part that struck the San Francisco native was the cruel coincidence of it all, getting hurt on what started as a triumphant return home, with UA extending its school-record start to 21-0 with a win at Stanford on Jan. 29.
Then, just two minutes into UA’s Feb. 1 game at Cal, he came down awkwardly on a Cal player’s foot, went to the training room, and came back with ice wrapped around his foot.
The next day, Super Bowl Sunday, he found out his season was over.
“That’s what was so ironic,” Ashley said. “I got home for the first time in my college career and that’s what happens.”
The next stage was acceptance and preparation for surgery to repair a ligament in his right foot.
UA coach Sean Miller said after the Cal game that Ashley’s foot appeared to be broken, then UA characterized it only as a foot injury, and the school said on Feb. 11 that he had successful surgery on a ligament.
Ashley said he didn’t know the complete nature of the injury but said it is something he expects to recover fully from.
In his first remarks to local media since the injury — UA has kept him off-limits but the NCAA requires players be available in open-locker room sessions before tournament games — Ashley said he has already been lifting weights and plans to resume basketball activities by June, adding that he will return to Arizona for his junior season.
“I never really expected it to be anything career-threatening or anything really wrong,” Ashley said.
The hardest part, as it turned out, wasn’t physical. It was mental. Ashley couldn’t travel with the Wildcats to Utah and Colorado last month while he recovered from the initial stages of the surgery and couldn’t do much else initially.
“He was kind of in a funky mood for a while,” guard Nick Johnson said. “He didn’t get to travel with the team and couldn’t really move out of bed. Now it’s definitely good to have him back.”
Ashley made the Wildcats’ final Pac-12 trip to Oregon, then accompanied them to the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. He was sitting in the locker room and on the courtside bench Thursday at Viejas Arena.
Still in crutches, Ashley has had no official role on the team, but that isn’t the point, of course.
After a rough early transition, the Wildcats now know how to win without him. They lost two of four games in February, losing at Cal in the game Ashley was hurt, then at ASU, and barely beating Oregon at home in between.
But since then, the Wildcats moved guard Gabe York into the starting lineup, stretching out the opposing defense and playing even more aggressively with a smaller, quicker lineup. Meanwhile, forward Aaron Gordon has excelled while playing his more natural power forward spot on a full-time basis.
“It was hard, having played with me for a decent amount of time, 21 games,” Ashley said. “We were an up-tempo team but we’re even more now because we’ve got Rondae (Hollis-Jefferson) and Aaron pushing the ball.
“They’re more up-tempo with Aaron playing forward. Although I could start the break, I didn’t necessarily do that. Now they start it immediately. I think that makes us a more aggressive team offensively, where we can use our defensive abilities to get offensive looks for us.”
Gordon said the biggest change for him came on the defensive end, where he has been guarding post players instead of dealing with small forwards and shooting guards half the time. Center Kaleb Tarczewski has also increased his range and overall scoring, averaging 2.1 additional points per game since Feb. 1.
“For me and Aaron, it’s actually expanded our roles,” Tarczewski said. “I think everyone on our team has embraced their new roles and it’s nice to do some things that we wouldn’t normally be able to do.”
Meanwhile, the healing in the locker room kept going, too.
Although Ashley has been known to keep to himself, Johnson says he also is a “character on and off the court,” a guy who can keep moods a little lighter.
The Wildcats keep Ashley’s moods lighter, too.
“Honestly, it’s helped me a lot,” Ashley said. “Every player goes through a time where they’re a little sad. I think honestly being around the team has helped me out so much. I’m going to try to return the favor by being supportive.”
Actually, point guard T.J. McConnell says, that’s happened already.
They’re back. He’s back.
Off the court, and in the locker room, at least.
“A lot of people in his position could be sulky or pouting but he’s so supportive toward us,” McConnell said. “He’s been so positive. … He’s just been the greatest teammate he can be.”