McKale warm-ups

The next time the Cats take the court someone will have a new role.
Photo by Wildcat Universe

You know things are not going your way when ending a 21-game win streak is not the worst part of your day.

Such was life for the Arizona Wildcats when the last-second loss to Cal was quickly overshadowed by concern over Brandon Ashley’s injury.

What does it mean for the Cats’ chances the rest of way? We won’t know until we see how the new rotation develops and that’s why this feels like the start of a new season.

Ashley injured his foot early in the game in Berkeley and the UA announced the worst possible news on Sunday: The starting power forward’s season is over.

Where does Sean Miller go from here? Does he try and maintain a big lineup by quickly getting Matt Korcheck or Zach Peters up to speed? Does he embrace going small with Jordin Mayes or Elliott Pitts playing a larger role? Does he try and replace Ashley’s shooting by experimenting with Kaleb Tarczewski setting up at the high post or along the baseline for 15-foot jumpers while Aaron Gordon plays on the blocks?

So many questions and one month to figure it out.

The trick will be replacing the 29 minutes a game Ashley was averaging before the injury without wearing down the other six regulars. The UA does not play a casual style. It’s tough man-to-man with many defensive possessions going deep into the shot clock. The offense is based on movement as opposed to four guys standing around and watching one player create his own shot.

It’ll be interesting to see where the minutes go. For future reference here is the existing rotation’s current workload:

PlayerMin. per Game
Johnson31.5
McConnell31.1
Gordon31.0
Tarczewski27.0
Hollis-Jefferson23.5
York18.6

Moving forward you have to find ways to get quality minutes from previously unused players. Miller will need to figure out the best way to make one or two new pieces fit even if it means a couple extra losses along the way.

The next seven games are like a new non-conference schedule with five of them in the state of Arizona. Then there’s a two-week stretch that includes a trip to the Oregon schools and the Pac-12 tournament which will be a mini version of a conference season. The NCAA tournament remains unchanged, the make-or-break final exam for every college basketball team.

The new season starts Thursday at McKale. Get ready to experience another round of the excitement and anxiousness that comes with opening day.

The good news is the real-life win/loss record doesn’t reset. The 21 victories are in the books and Arizona still leads the Pac-12 by two full games. If you budget three Wildcat losses over the second half of the conference season UCLA and/or Cal would have to go 8-1 down the stretch to tie. Root for more Bruin/Bear defeats to provide more wiggle room for another UA league title.

But everyone wants to know about the Cats’ tournament prognosis. Just three days ago Arizona was on pace for the No. 1 overall seed and the inside track to the Final Four. Now?

I don’t know. No one knows.

We can’t establish this team’s revised postseason ceiling until we see what this revised team looks like.

You can’t be certain the Wildcats will be just fine because you’re left with only six proven players. Foul trouble and further injuries are major concerns.

At the same time you can’t assume the team will fall apart either. What if Gordon or Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gets it going on the offensive end? What if more shots for T.J. McConnell turns him back into the 43% 3-point shooter he was at Duquesne? What if Mayes regains his March (2011 or 2013) form?

This Arizona squad cannot be written off because a lineup of McConnell, Nick Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Tarczewski is still an exceptional defensive unit. If the new rotation player(s) can provide enough help so that the starters are fresh at the end of games, the defense can take over.

You also can’t underestimate the motivation to honor a fallen teammate. The sad irony is Johnson was talking about this exact scenario last week. Here’s what he said:

That’s what a team should be like – when (Louisville’s) Kevin Ware went down with the injury (last year). Everybody was crying. They were sad and down. I think ultimately that’s why they won the national championship. They rallied around him. I said, ‘That’s what we need. That’s what’s going to take us over the top.’

Let the rallying begin.

– – – – –