Arizona came into Saturday night's tilt against California knowing they could very well lose for the first time all year. What they weren't prepared for was to lose sophomore forward Brandon Ashley to a broken foot.
Just a few minutes after tipoff, Ashley went for a rebound in the lane. He stepped on David Kravish's foot and immediately fell to the ground. He was unable to put any kind of weight on it and mouthed to the trainer, "I can't move it."
At first there was hope that it was just a sprained ankle, but he later returned with his foot wrapped in ice. He left the arena on crutches and a protective boot. Sean Miller said after the game that the foot was likely broken, though Ashley would undergo X-rays once the team returned to Tucson to determine the severity.
Ashley, a former five-star recruit, had really found his groove during his second season in Tucson. A 6'9 forward capable of stepping out and knocking down a jumper, he was averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds this year while logging about 28 minutes a night. He also helped form arguably the best frontcourt in college basketball alongside freshman phenom Aaron Gordon and seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski.
So where does Arizona go from here?
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will likely replace Ashley in the starting lineup. Miller could also elect to start sharpshooter Gabe York and keep Hollis-Jefferson coming off the bench, but that would force the Wildcats to play small. Their biggest advantage all year has been their size, and Miller is unlikely to just change everything overnight.
Hollis-Jefferson is more than capable of assuming a larger role. A McDonald's All-American just a year ago, RHJ oozes with potential. He has an NBA-ready body at 6'7 and 220 pounds, possessing long arms and terrific athleticism. He averages better than eight points and five rebounds a night, and he may be the best defender on a team that ranks as the best defensive team in the country.
Some have compared him to Andre Iguodala, who came up through the college ranks at Arizona a decade ago. Here was Hollis-Jefferson doing his best Iguodala impression against New Mexico State earlier this season.
The difference between Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson in a vacuum is considerable, but not astounding. That's not to say the Wildcats won't really miss him, but it's not a situation similar to if Duke were to lose Jabari Parker or if Creighton lost Doug McDermott.
Where the injury really hurts Arizona is in the depth department. Ashley was part of a tight rotation with seven players averaging 18+ minutes a game. Other than reserve guards Elliott Pitts and Jordin Mayes, who have seldom played since Pac-12 play began a month ago, no one really sees the floor regularly outside of the seven-man rotation.
It would seem Pitts will likely garner a couple of minutes moving forward, as will junior forward Matt Korcheck given his size.
All of these alternatives pale in comparison to Ashley, though. His absence is the difference between Arizona heading into March as the favorites to cut down the nets, and Arizona heading into March with a goal of reaching the Elite 8. Anything can happen in the Big Dance, but the Wildcats just don't have the depth to win six in a row and cut down the nets in Dallas.