Arizona made another deep run in the NCAA tournament, coming within a few seconds of reaching the Final Four.
Successful as it was, the Wildcats’ 2013-14 could also be defined by what could have been, as in how far could they have gone if forward Brandon Ashley had not gone down with a foot injury and spent the final two months in street clothes after injuring his foot.
“We’ve never talked about Brandon Ashley being hurt,” coach Sean Miller said after the Wildcats lost to Wisconsin 64-63 in overtime Saturday night. “Brandon is a terrific player. We could have gone south or not achieved what we did. But we still were right here today and that is a real testament to our team and really our coaching staff and everybody. It’s not easy to deal with an injury on Feb. 1 like that.”
Arizona (33-5) did its best without the star forward.
The Wildcats were arguably the best team in college basketball with Ashley in the lineup, setting a school record by winning their first 16 games while sitting atop The Associated Press poll for two months.
When the sophomore injured his right foot against California, Arizona had to regroup and the players had to fill new and, in some cases, unfamiliar roles.
Defensively, the loss of Ashley didn’t seem to hurt. The Wildcats were one of the best teams on that end all season, finishing in the top 10 nationally in scoring and opposing field goal percentage.
Where Ashley’s loss made the biggest difference was on the offensive end.
The 6-foot-8 forward gave Arizona a versatile scoring threat, someone who could score inside, off the dribble and, after working on his shot during the offseason, keep defenses honest with his long-range shooting.
Without Ashley, the Wildcats weren’t quite as consistent, going through occasional scoring ruts and rough shooting nights from the perimeter. Arizona shot 28 percent from 3-point range in its four losses during the regular season and shot 39 percent overall against Wisconsin’s smothering defense.
The Wildcats still had their chances in the closing seconds against the Badgers, but junior Nick Johnson was called for an offensive foul with 3 seconds left and failed on a potential game-winner at the buzzer after Arizona forced a turnover.
“This one hurts, but congratulations to Wisconsin,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. “We fought and fought and fought, and I’m really proud of the way we did fight today. You know, Wisconsin made one more play at the end and that was the difference.”
Arizona is built to succeed, thanks to Miller’s chops as a recruiter; the Wildcats are still young and talented with another impressive class on the way.
What happens next season could hinge on who comes back.
Multitalented freshman forward Aaron Gordon has been expected to play one season of college basketball and head to the NBA. He had a sometimes-spectacular first season of college basketball, showing off his ability to soar above the rim, rebound with ferocity and play defense like few players his age while being chosen the Pac-12 freshman of the year.
“I’m not sure,” Gordon said of his future after the loss to Wisconsin. “I have a great foundation so I’m going to talk to a few people and see how that goes and then make an educated decision.”
Fellow freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson faces a similar decision. The athletic 6-foot-7 forward was a bundle of energy during his freshman season, providing the Wildcats with a go-all-the-time boost whether he was coming off the bench as the sixth man or in the starting lineup in of Ashley.
Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski made big strides during his second season in Tucson, making himself an even better NBA prospect by reshaping his body and expanding his game.
Even Johnson could look at heading to the NBA.
An afterthought among the nation’s elite players before the season, the explosive guard barged into the conversation with a superb junior season, earning Pac-12 player of the year honors along with being named to numerous All-America teams.
“I’m very proud of everything we accomplished,” Miller said. “And I think, again, when you have a season like we’ve had, it only sets the tone for future seasons like this.”
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