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Why losing Brandon Ashley would be a massive blow to Arizona’s title hopes

Feb 2, 2014, 2:09 AM EDT

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No. 1 Arizona’s undefeated season came to an end on Saturday night, losing 60-58 to Cal on a game-winning jumper from Justin Cobbs.

Their bid to become the first Pac-12 team to make it through the conference undefeated since the league was known as the Pac-8 is over.

That No. 1 ranking goes ‘poof’ on Monday morning, taken over by a Syracuse team coming off of a thrilling win over Duke, and Nick Johnson’s bid to be the National Player of the Year takes a blow thanks to a 1-for-14 shooting performance in which he committed five turnovers.

Yuck.

But none of that actually matters in the long run. Arizona still is in commanding position in the Pac-12 standings. They still look destined to be a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday. And Johnson is still an all-american that I would trust taking a shot with the game on the line over all but maybe five players in all of college basketball.

What matters is Brandon Ashley.

More specifically, what matters is Ashley’s right foot.

“We might have lost Brandon Ashley for the year,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said on his radio show after the loss on Saturday. He went on to say that there’s a really good chance that Ashley broke a bone in his foot, and that right now, the Wildcats are waiting to hear about the severity of the injury. “It’s more about the level of break that will be involved,” he said.

If Ashley’s injury keeps him out for six weeks, he may be able to return to the court in time for the Pac-12 tournament, which, in an ideal situation, would allow him to get back into shape for the NCAA tournament, where he wouldn’t really be needed until the second weekend.

That’s a perfect world.

But assuming that Arizona’s wold isn’t perfect, this is just a devastating blow to Wildcat’s title chances.

For starters, Ashley is arguably Arizona’s most talented player. He’s a versatile, athletic 6-foot-10 forward that can score with his back to the basket or step out on the perimeter and knock down a jumper. He averages 12.0 points and 6.0 boards and shoots 52.8% from the field and 39.3% from three. That alone makes Ashley’s loss painful.

But there’s so much more at play here:

  • Arizona’s size makes them so difficult to matchup with. With Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski up front and Aaron Gordon playing the three, they have the biggest front line in the country. Gordon can matchup with fours. He’s a mismatch against threes. Arizona loses that advantage.
  • Ashley’s ability to shoot helped spread the floor. Cal dared Gordon to shoot all night on Saturday, playing a good 10 feet off of him. With Gordon having to play primarily at the four, that allows a bigger body free roam in the paint to double-team Tarczewski.
  • That issue is two-fold. With Gordon at the four, that means Arizona will have to play either Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Gabe York. Hollis-Jefferson is one heckuva defender, but he’s a liability offensively. York can really shoot the ball, but he’s a liability defensively. In other words, without Ashley on the floor, Arizona’s best offensive lineup looks different than their best defensive lineup. With Ashley, that’s not the case.
  • The Wildcats don’t have much depth with Ashley healthy. Without him? Yikes.

It’s too early to write this team off completely as a national title contender, not when they’re coached by someone as smart as Sean Miller and not when they have the kind of talent on the roster that Arizona does.

But if the Wildcats don’t have a healthy Brandon Ashley, the odds of this team winning a national title will take a massive hit.

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