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Arizona coach Sean Miller on Brandon Ashley’s injury: ‘We still can be an excellent team’

The Arizona Wildcats suffered two losses Saturday against California, and it’s pretty easy to tell which one was worse.

When the game ended, the scoreboard read 60-58 in favor of the home team. It was Arizona’s first loss of the year.

But the team’s biggest loss came a couple minutes into the game, when sophomore forward Brandon Ashley landed awkwardly after rebounding his own miss and immediately crumpled to the ground in pain. He spent the rest of the game sitting on the bench with his right foot wrapped in ice. He left the arena wearing a walking boot.

After the game, head coach Sean Miller said the fear was the forward suffered a break and would be out for a while, and late Sunday, the team announced Ashley would miss the rest of the season.

In his weekly press conference Monday, Miller said Ashley has a ways to go before he gets back on the court.

“It’s a season-ending foot injury and it’s obviously significant,” he said. “First and foremost with an injury like that, it’s always about what’s in the best interest of the student-athlete, and in this case, what’s in the best interest of Brandon Ashley’s future?

“With those being determined, I think the other part of it is that there is a real possibility that there will be surgery needed. I think right now the next phase is just to determine — there’s different ways of doing surgery — again, which way is going to be in his best interest so that the choice is made (with) no regrets and that he can have the surgery, move forward and have a prosperous career.”

Miller said the surgery would be performed in the next couple of weeks.

Losing Ashley is a significant blow to a Wildcats team that is now ranked second in the AP Poll and third in the USA Today Coaches Poll after spending the last eight weeks atop both. At 21-1 (8-1 in Pac-12 play) they have been looked at as a favorite to reach the Final Four, but there is no way of knowing what the team will look like without its starting power forward for an extended period of time.

Ashley had started every game for the Wildcats this season, averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting .522 from the field and .379 from three-point range. Miller said he’ll be replaced in the lineup by freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, with players like Matt Korcheck, Elliott Pitts and Jordin Mayes expected to see more minutes off the bench.

“Are we going to miss Brandon Ashley? No doubt about it,” Miller said. “But we still can be an excellent team.”

The coach, who is in his fifth season at the helm in Tucson, pointed to the fact that the Cats have nine games left in the regular season before the postseason, so it is not as if they are shorthanded for the entirety of the campaign.

“The first thing that’s very deceptive about our team,” Miller said, “is we have nobody on our team, through 21 games, that has averaged more than 32 minutes.”

Junior guard Nick Johnson is averaging 31.5 minutes per contest, while freshman Aaron Gordon, at 31 minutes per game, is the only other player in the 30s.

Coming primarily off the bench, Hollis-Jefferson plays 23.5 minutes per contest while guard Gabe York sees 18.6 per game.

Korcheck has seen action in just 10 games this season, though, while Pitts has played in just eight.

“If we did nothing different other than just give the players that have played, minus Brandon, more of an opportunity, that’s part of our solution,” Miller said. “With that in mind, we know that foul trouble, fatigue can certainly weigh against you.

“But again, we don’t have to do this for 30 games, we have to do it, for in essence, nine regular season games and then we’re in post-season.”