The Arizona Wildcats basketball team lost its first game of the 2013-14 season on Feb. 1 at California, 60-58, but the gut-wrenching defeat at the buzzer wasn't the worst news for Sean Miller’s squad.
Forward Brandon Ashley broke his foot just two minutes into the game and will miss the entire season.
Ashley averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds a game before getting hurt. It didn't draw the headlines that Aaron Gordon, Nick Johnson or T.J. McConnell did, but his absence will be felt.
He was a critical piece in the offense with his ability to score from down low or even from mid-range, but his pick-and-roll skills with McConnell will be missed the most. Gordon is not as effective in that type of situation because opposing defenses don’t see him as the shooting threat that Ashley was.
However, even with Ashley’s injury, the Wildcats will be one of the four teams awarded with a No. 1 seed when Selection Sunday rolls around.
The No. 2 team in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 Poll proved its resilience against Oregon in the first game without its forward, winning 67-65 against a squad that is on the bubble and desperate for quality victories.
Will Arizona earn a No. 1 seed?
What stood out the most about that game was that Arizona was still able to walk away victorious even when its offense was completely disjointed for the majority of the contest. That is because the strength of this team isn't Gordon’s impressive dunks, McConnell’s leadership or even Johnson’s overall excellence.
It is the stifling defense it plays on a nightly basis.
Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated gave Wildcats fans a silver lining when Ashley went down with injury:
The Wildcats' defense won't suffer as much. While Ashley is long and athletic, his replacement, Hollis-Jefferson, is a better overall defender and more productive rebounder even though he's just 6-7. Frontcourt depth is an issue, but Ashley was their most foul-prone big; Gordon (their highest-impact defender) and Tarczewski (a conservative, wall-up 7-footer) average fewer than four fouls per 40 minutes and should be able to stay on the floor.
Arizona was ranked No. 1 in pace-adjusted defensive efficiency in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings as of Feb. 7, and that defense will carry it to plenty of victories throughout the season’s stretch run.
The Wildcats' remaining regular-season games are as follows: versus Oregon State, at Arizona State, at Utah, at Colorado, versus California, versus Stanford, at Oregon State and at Oregon.
That is a lot of road games, but on paper, Arizona has more talent than all of those squads. Furthermore, with a 22-1 overall record and quality nonconference victories over the likes of San Diego State (on the road), Duke and Michigan (on the road), the Wildcats could afford to drop one or two of those and still earn a No. 1 seed.
ESPN’s Andy Katz points out that the Wildcats’ hold on a potential No. 1 seed will be bolstered by that nonconference slate:
Rankings are not about resume. Rankings are about how a team is playing. Arizona better than Florida. Arizona 1 seed is more than safe.— Andy Katz (@ESPNAndyKatz) February 2, 2014
The Blue Devils, Aztecs and Wolverines are all among the contenders for the No. 1 seeds, so those head-to-head victories will go a long way on Selection Sunday. Other contenders are Florida, Syracuse, Wichita State, Michigan State, Kansas, Cincinnati and Villanova.
Winning a national title without Ashley will be a different question entirely, but with a number of quality wins already on the resume and a fairly manageable schedule the rest of the way, Arizona will lock up a No. 1 seed.
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