After losing a key piece of its offensive puzzle, its first game of the year and its No. 1 rank, the Arizona men’s basketball team will try to recompose itself.
Freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will become the Wildcats’ new starting forward, while reserves sophomore guard Gabe York, junior forward Matt Korcheck, senior guard Jordin Mayes and freshman guard Elliott Pitts will also receive more minutes for No. 2 UA.
“Adversity seems to strike all teams at some level in a long season — sometimes it’s more severe than others,” head coach Sean Miller said. “We all recognize we lost one of our key players.”
Arizona lost sophomore starting forward Brandon Ashley to a season-ending foot injury in the opening minutes of the UA’s 60-58 loss at Cal.
“It sucks, but we’re going to have to move on,” point guard T.J. McConnell said. “Guys are going to have to step up and people are going to have to play more minutes. We feel bad for Brandon, but as a team, we’ve got to move on and get ready for Oregon.”
McConnell said that, coming off a loss, practice would be tougher this week but that the team is eager and ramped up to play.
Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski said that while it’s obviously disappointing to lose a key player like Ashley, he thinks the whole team could look at it as an opportunity for those who haven’t had much playing time to get a little more, and for those who are playing to have a bigger role on the team.
“I think if we stay focused and work hard this week in practice, that we will be fine,” Tarczewski said.
Miller said that nobody on this year’s squad has averaged more than 31.5 minutes per game, but each of the team’s current everyday players is willing to play more to fill the gap left by Ashley.
There are 13 players from eight teams in the Pac-12 who have played more than 32 minutes a game.
“If we did nothing different other than just give the players that have played, minus Brandon, more of an opportunity, that’s [already] part of our solution,” Miller said.
Miller said that Korcheck and a dual threat comprised of Pitts and Mayes could be used when starters become fatigued or are in foul trouble.
Korcheck, who redshirted last year, has waited for this opportunity, and Miller praised him for his hard work and physical play.
“When he’s out there for spot minutes or short-term opportunities, physically, we don’t lose much because he defends, he’s physical, and he plays hard,” Miller said. “Pitts, like Matt, has practiced hard everyday, and Jordin Mayes has played a lot of basketball in his career; [although] maybe not as much this year.”
Hollis-Jefferson is the final and most important piece to the puzzle for a deep tournament run. The former sixth-man will eat up the bulk of the minutes left by Ashley and has already carried his weight this year offensively and has averaged 8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game over an average 23.5 minutes in 22 appearances and two starts.
“Those guys will be part of the solution, but I think the biggest part [will be] Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson], for example, who played 23 minutes a game — there’s no question he’s capable of playing 30,” Miller said. “I think the first guy you’ll notice playing more is him.”
With only nine games remaining of the regular season until the postseason begins, Miller is confident that Arizona will still be as competitive as ever.
“A lot of basketball is behind us,” Miller said. “We are fortunate that we have been relatively healthy from start to game 21; it’s just game 22 changed quickly.
“That’s what makes team sports in particular so dynamic. With this, we have to make up for his loss in a number of different ways, and I have no doubt that we can do that.”
—Follow Evan Rosenfeld @EvanRosenfeld17