BOULDER, Colo. - Arizona won’t be fully recovered from losing forward Brandon Ashley at any point this season, but the Wildcats looked like they have adapted in blowing out Colorado in Boulder on Saturday.
Questions about the Wildcats offense followed them to Boulder because they had scored 70 points or more just once since mid-January. Those questions seemed silly during a second half in which they shot 85 percent against a usually defensive-minded Colorado team in one of the most difficult venues to play in the Pac-12.
Colorado was 60-8 at home over the past four seasons under coach Tad Boyle going into Saturday’s game. The fourth-ranked Wildcats embarrassed the Buffaloes on their home court, winning 88-61.
While Arizona has lost two games since Ashley suffered a broken foot Feb. 1, the reality is the Wildcats didn’t fall off much. One of the two losses came in the final seconds at Cal and the other was by a three-point margin in double overtime to Arizona State. The Wildcats are still comfortably in first place in the Pac-12 by two games.
Arizona guard Nick Johnson was asked after Saturday’s romp over the Buffs if the victory sent a message to the rest of the Pac-12.
“I think the Pac knew what we could do,” Johnson said. “We were the No. 1 team in the country for eight weeks and then we had a little setback with Brandon, but adversity always strikes and it’s how you respond. We’re trying to respond correctly. I think we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
It took some time for coach Sean Miller to adjust to losing Ashley, who was the Wildcats most versatile offensive weapon and one of its most dependable rebounders averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. Following the loss to the Sun Devils, Miller said he decided he needed to expand his rotation and give his starters more rest.
Johnson, who still played 34 minutes, said that has been invaluable to him and others. Players like Matt Korcheck, Jacob Hazzard and Elliott Pitts are getting more minutes. Miller said the 3-point shot has become more of a weapon with the substitutes off the bench and he believes it has helped the offense.
“We learned a lot in the Arizona State game, and from that game on I think we have a more clear direction of what our team needs to be the best we can,” Miller said. “I believe we still can get better because we haven’t had a lot of time playing without Brandon. The more time we have, I think the more sure of ourselves we become.”
Miller said it takes time for a team to adjust to losing one of its core members. It’s an experience Colorado coach Tad Boyle is learning from this season as well. The Buffs lost Spencer Dinwiddie in January to a torn ACL. CU seemed to playing its best basketball since Dinwiddie went down until it encountered Arizona on Saturday. Dinwiddie was the Buffs’ best defender and they missed him badly during the Wildcats second-half explosion.
Arizona guard T.J. McConnell scored nine points and dished 10 assists against the Buffs and called the victory in Boulder ‘a big step’ in recovering from losing Ashley. But McConnell said he believes his team still has a long way to go.
“He was obviously one of the better rebounders on our team and he was a mismatch for a lot of players because he could step out and shoot and then if they came out on him, he would be able to drive to the basket,” McConnell said. “So he pretty much left a lot for us and we’re just trying to pick up the slack for him.”
While much of the focus has been on Arizona’s ability to score without Ashley, the Wildcats insist they key to their success is on the defensive end and in rebounding. They held the Buffaloes without a field goal for the first 10 minutes of Saturday’s game and to 33 percent shooting in the game. They also outrebounded the Buffs by eight.
“It’s always a process and we’re definitely getting better at it,” Johnson said of moving on without Ashley. “When you lose someone like that who is such a big part of your team, the numbers don’t even show how big a part of the team he is. So whenever you lose someone like that it’s always going to be a transition. This is our seventh game without him? We’re starting to find our niche.”
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