Once an MRI confirmed his fears that Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending broken foot Saturday night against Cal, Arizona coach Sean Miller tried to put a positive spin on the loss of his starting power forward.
"Someone once told me, the hottest heat forges the strongest steel," Miller said in a statement released Sunday night. "This adversity will ultimately make Brandon and our team stronger moving forward."
Ashley's absence may not doom Arizona's hopes of securing Miller's first Final Four bid or even winning a national title, but his injury certainly doesn't make the top-ranked Wildcats "stronger" either. The tight seven-man rotation Arizona rode to a 21-0 start is down to six and the Wildcats will need unproven players to step up to mitigate the loss of their third-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder.
One of Arizona's most improved players from last season to this season, Ashley averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds and shot 52.2 percent from the field prior to his injury just two minutes into the Cal game. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had the ability to score with his back to the basket or to stick a catch-and-shoot jump shot against opposing centers who left him free on the perimeter.
To replace Ashley, Arizona will probably dole out more minutes to its six top players while also seeing if another bench player or two can handle a greater role.
Expect defensive ace Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to enter the starting lineup at small forward with Aaron Gordon sliding to power forward to replace Ashley and sharp-shooting guard Gabe York going from seventh man to first off the bench. Either 6-foot-10 junior college transfer Matt Korchek or 6-foot-10 Kansas transfer Zach Peters will step into the role of third big man even though both have played in less than half Arizona's games this season. Veteran Jordin Mayes and freshman Eliott Pitts could see a few extra minutes off the bench too if the Wildcats require more backcourt depth.
The big question will be whether Korchek or Peters can be effective enough as a third big man that Arizona doesn't have to go small when either Gordon or Kaleb Tarczewski get in foul trouble or require a rest. Also, the Wildcats' are less capable of absorbing even a minor injury to one of their starters because that group is probably going to be playing 30 or more minutes per game the rest of the season.
Arizona wouldn't be in this predicament had highly touted forward Grant Jerrett not left early for the NBA Draft last spring or had reserve Angelo Chol not had concerns about his playing time and transferred to San Diego State.
Alas, the Wildcats cannot recall Jerrett from the D-League or Chol from the Aztecs, so they'll have to hope someone else can fill the void Ashley leaves.