Is Arizona Still a National Title Threat After Losing Brandon Ashley?

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Is Arizona Still a National Title Threat After Losing Brandon Ashley?
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When ESPN's Jeff Goodman broke the news that Arizona's Brandon Ashley will be out for the remainder of the season, it was a signal to the entire nation that an additional spot in the Final Four is officially up for grabs.

Arizona was already an incredibly shallow team. With only seven players averaging more than 5.1 minutes per game, foul trouble and injuries have always been a huge risk.

After nearly three months of predominantly good fortune in jumping out to a 21-0 start, the Wildcats lost their perfect record, and perhaps their title dreams, on Saturday night.

Excluding his scoreless, two-minute effort against Cal, Ashley was averaging 12.0 points and 6.0 rebounds in 28.9 minutes per night. Matt KorcheckAshley's presumed replacement in the seven-man rotationhas a grand total of 12 points and 14 rebounds all season. In Pac-12 play, he has two points and three rebounds and has missed six games. 

Maybe Korcheck is secretly a stud who just needs an opportunity to shine. More likely, however, the Wildcats are forced to replace an all-conference type of talent with a guy who would have trouble finding playing time at virtually any major conference program.

Quality depth in the frontcourt is arguably the reason why Arizona has done as well as it has until Saturday. According to KenPom.com (subscription required), the Wildcats are 13th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 14th in the nation at preventing the opponent from getting offensive rebounds.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

If we can assume an equal number of rebounding opportunities on each end of the court, Arizona is grabbing 56.3 percent of all boardswhich would be the third-highest rate in the country.

And why not? What's the point in crashing the boards when Arizona regularly has a trio of talented sequoias in the paint to scoop up missed shots?

Korcheck is actually two inches taller than Ashley, but go ahead and ask Duke’s Marshall Plumlee or Baylor’s Isaiah Austin if added height is necessarily an advantage on the glass.

To be sure, Korcheck isn't suddenly going to be asked to play 28.9 minutes per game in replacing Ashley. However, Arizona's other big men can't exactly pick up about 30 percent of the slack, either. Even if Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson each play an additional five minutes per game, that still leaves roughly 14 minutes per game for a player who has logged just 45 minutes this season.

And even before Arizona lost Ashley, there was already an unsettling trend developing for one of the Wildcats' other forwards.

Gordon cannot shoot. Like, at all.

Aaron Gordon's shot selection in last seven games
Shot Type Made Attempted Percentage Points per shot
Dunk 13 13 100.0% 2.0
Layup / Tip-in 11 30 36.7% 0.73
Two-point jumper 6 30 20.0% 0.4
Three-point jumper 0 7 0.0% 0.0
Free-throw 13 29 44.8% 0.45

ESPN play-by-play log

The strategy makes no sense at first glance, but opposing teams were gradually exploiting the fact that the best way to beat Arizona is by almost completely disregarding the player most likely to be a lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

He is a fantastic and fun-to-watch dunker, but if he is attempting to toss the ball into the hoop, it's great news for Arizona's opponent.

Over his last seven games, Gordon has made just 18 percent of his jump shots, 37 percent of his layups and tip-ins and 45 percent of his free throws.

But hey, he's making 100 percent of his dunks. That's more than Duke's Rodney Hood can claim after Saturday night.

In the last three games alone, Gordon has missed 23 jump shots. Utah, Stanford and California dared him to shoot, and he was happy to oblige. Let him shoot, and if he goes up for a dunk, just hack him hard. At his shooting percentages, two free throws would net just 0.9 points for Arizona as opposed to the two points a successful dunk would return.

With Ashley now out of the mix—of the primary seven-man rotation, he had the second-best field-goal percentage and second-best three-point percentage—Arizona will need to rely even more heavily upon Gordon for points. And a good percentage of his shots won't be nearly as wide open as they have been, as teams will almost certainly focus more on stopping him than they will on Korcheck.

So, we're left to wonder how Sean Miller will adapt to life without his starting power forward. Great as he is, Nick Johnson probably can't be responsible for all of Arizona's field-goal attempts.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

If this team is going to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, Tarczewski has to become a much bigger part of the offense.

Frankly, it's a bit stunning that Arizona wasn't already finding a ton of use for a seven-footer who shoots better than 80 percent from the free-throw line. Tarczewski has averaged just one field-goal attempt for every 4.6 minutes on the court. In two of Arizona's last six games, he played more than 25 minutes and only attempted one shot.

Hollis-Jefferson will also be experiencing quite the increase in his usage rate. The freshman forward has played in just 58.6 percent of the team's minutes to this point in time, but received a career-high 31 minutes in Saturday's loss to Cal.

Can Arizona win it all without Brandon Ashley?

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But will it be enough? Can the best seven-man rotation in the country survive as a six-man unit? An 18-wheeler can function just fine for a while after blowing a tire or two, but at some point, it needs to be replaced.

Playing at 85 percent, Arizona is still better than 95 percent of the teams in the country. On the road against one of the top teams in the Pac-12, the Wildcats played 38 of the 40 minutes without Ashley and saw its best player make just one of his 14 field-goal attempts in the game, yet still had a chance to win in the closing minutes.

Arizona is certainly still a threat to win it all.

But its spot in the Final Four should probably be written in pencil instead of permanent ink.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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