The Arizona Wildcats basketball team’s historical push toward a 21-0 start to the season has not been without its close calls. The Cardiac Cats have a knack for dramatic finishes, and have always seemed to come out on top. That all changed on Feb. 1, however, when the Cats nine lives ran out during their matchup with the California Golden Bears. Yes, Cal’s last second shot that flat lined the hearts of Wildcat fans was hard to swallow, but the biggest loss of the evening was that of Brandon Ashley. The sophomore forward has been diagnosed with a broken right foot after an awkward landing on an offensive rebound attempt in the first half of Arizona’s first loss. The injury will sideline the Wildcats’ third leading scorer and rebounder for the remainder of the season.
Filling in the tremendous gaps left behind in Ashley’s absence will be a daunting task for head coach Sean Miller. At a long-armed 6 foot, 8-inch, Ashley was a prime tool in crowding the paint, contesting shots, snatching up rebounds, and making Arizona one of the larger team’s in the conference. His lanky frame fit perfectly into the Wildcats’ defensive strategies, but where Ashley will be most severely missed is on offense. This time last season, Ashley was a one dimensional scorer, reserving himself to short jump hooks and awkward cuts toward the basket. This season, however, Ashley was in new form. The forward had polished his game in order to fill the needs of the team, fashioning himself as a dangerous outside scorer and shooting 36 percent from three point range.
To replace the vast and diverse skill set of one of its brightest stars, the Wildcats will need to rely on a handful of players. Expect the Cats to bank on outside shooters and guards rather than calling up forwards Matt Korchek or Zach Peters to replace the size forfeited with Ashley on the bench. There are a few Wildcats in particular who should see a significant spike in minutes in order to meet this goal.
Though not an outside scorer, freshman 6th man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will now find himself starting in Ashley’s place. Hollis-Jefferson may not have the offensive fire-power of his teammate, but the 6-7 wingman is more than capable of replacing Ashley’s defensive
presence. His raw athleticism, intense energy, and ability to guard on the perimeter will fit well into the Wildcat onslaught.
Another player whose workload will increase dramatically is sophomore and newly appointed 6th man, Gabe York. With a three-point field goal percentage of 40 percent, York may just be one of the most pure shooters on the team. The guard will give the Wildcats a second outside scoring option when sharing time with team leader Nick Johnson, and will surely be expected to knock down key shots when called upon by Sean Miller, a job that was often issued to Ashley earlier this season.
Shifting forward into Gabe York’s former role of providing a brief offensive spark off the bench will be freshman guard Elliot Pitts. Seeing limited minutes earlier this season, Pitts has a deft shooting ability, and should be able to hold his own against most PAC 12 teams should he find himself on the court for an extended amount of time.
Through the clever usage of the remainder of its arsenal, Arizona still possesses all the tools to maintain their positioning toward the head of the pack. It will not be easy, and there will almost surely be moments of frustration, but prior hopes of a Final Four appearance should not be abandoned.