A lot didn't go right in their first game without Brandon Ashley, but No. 2 Arizona toughed out a home win over Oregon on Thursday. After trailing for most of the second half, they pulled away in the last five minutes and won 67-65 in a game that may have been the final nail in the coffin for the Ducks' at-large hopes.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the talented freshman wing who replaced Ashley in the starting line-up, had 14 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. At 6'7, 215 pounds, RHJ is one of the most physically-gifted players in the country. He's a guy who could end up in the lottery one day.
If there's a concern for Arizona, it's that neither RHJ nor Aaron Gordon is a consistent perimeter shooter. As a result, there isn't much floor spacing in their starting five. Ashley shot 52 percent from the field and 37 percent from three, and his ability to stretch the floor was dearly missed on Thursday.
Oregon spent a lot of the game in a zone, conceding the outside shot and daring the Wildcats to beat them from the perimeter. TJ McConnell and Nick Johnson combined to go 2-11 from three and they are supposed to be Arizona's designated shooters in this line-up.
Sean Miller can bring two shooters off his bench -- Elliott Pitts and Gabe York -- but neither has the athletic ability to defend a backcourt like Oregon, which can attack from multiple positions on the perimeter. To survive without Ashley, Miller will have to navigate that dilemma in his rotation.
One line-up with promise is an ultra small-ball line-up with Gordon at the 5 and RHJ at the 4. Such a five could press out on opponents and get out into the open floor, where their lack of shooting isn't as much of an issue. For now, the Wildcats are still trying to figure out their new identity.
Either way, Arizona's half-court D will remain their backbone and that proved to be the difference on Thursday, as they were able to shut down Oregon and turn defense into offense in the game's decisive moments. They still have more than enough talent to make a run at the Final Four.
Plays like this can't hurt either:
Cincinnati holds off UConn
In another high-level game for the brand new American Conference, Cincinnati and UConn hooked up for a thriller on Thursday night. Two tradition-rich programs with a lot of NBA-caliber athletes and coaches who stress defense, they look like they could be conference rivals for many years to come.
For Cincinnati, the story on Thursday was senior SG Sean Kilpatrick, who was absolutely dominant with 26 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. It was a very Lance Stephenson-esque performance, which is ironic because Kilpatrick was part of the same recruiting class as Born Ready.
The Bearcats defense was also able to squeeze out inefficient performances from the Huskies' Shabazz Napier (5-19) and Ryan Boatright (3-9), which has been their formula for victory all season. With high-level athletes at all five positions on the floor, Mick Cronin's team can play stifling defense.
Their one weakness, a lack of size upfront to defend the post, wasn't an issue against the Huskies, who don't have a big man capable of scoring with his back to the basket. UConn had chances to tie the game in the final minute, but neither Napier nor Boatright could get a good look.
Around the country
This happened during VCU's 68-52 win over Rhode Island:
LSU missed a great chance to put some distance between itself and the pack in the SEC, losing 91-78 to Georgia in Athens. Johnny O'Bryant played only 15 minutes due to foul trouble, but freshman forwards Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey stepped up in his absence, combining to score 34 points.
Here's LSU's Martin doing his best Ryan Anderson impression:
Michigan State made short work of Penn State in Adreian Payne's first game back, winning 82-67. Payne had 13 points in 12 minutes, which has to be an encouraging sign for Spartan fans.
In mid-major news, there was a thrill-a-minute shoot-out in the Ohio Valley Conference between Belmont and Murray State, two teams who have been known to punch above their weight in March. Belmont won at home, 99-96, but expect these two to square off again in the OVC Tournament for the right to be a low seed that no one wants to face.