What the Wildcats lost when Brandon Ashley was lost for the year

Tuesday February 4th, 2014

Brandon Ashley's improvement offensively was key to the Wildcats' fast start to the season.
Christian Peteson/Getty Images

Brandon Ashley's right foot landed in the wrong place, in traffic, and the national title race was altered. It was a routine situation, just two minutes into Arizona's loss to Cal on Saturday; the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward backed down David Kravish in the paint, missed a lefty hook, leapt for the rebound, came down on one of Kravish's sneakers, and collapsed to the ground. On Super Bowl Sunday, the Wildcats announced that Ashley was done for the season with a broken foot.

Arizona spent eight weeks at the top of the Associated Press poll for a multitude of reasons. Ashley's transformation into a high-value offensive option was, at best, the fifth-most-talked about reason, after the addition of true point guard T.J. McConnell, the All-America-level play of Nick Johnson, the energy and athleticism of freshman phenom Aaron Gordon, and the stinginess of Sean Miller's Pack-Line defense.

The importance of Ashley, who averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds, may only be fully realized in his absence. He was the Wildcats' most improved and multi-dimensional offensive weapon. The first step in assessing how they'll have to adapt is understanding what they'll be missing:

• When he arrived in Tucson in 2012-13, Ashley was coming off a high school career -- in Oakland and at Findlay Prep -- where he got his points in two ways: "Either going in the post and shooting a hook," he said, "or catching it on the wing and slashing." When he set ballscreens as a freshman at Arizona, they were mostly for the purpose of getting point-guard-in-name-only Mark Lyons free to score.

And in the event that Ashley did get involved in any screen-and-roll action, the three clips in this video edit are representative of what happened. He was not a shooter, so he'd either half-dive into open space around the elbow -- kind of like what Michigan's Mitch McGary did in pick-and-rolls with Trey Burke last season -- or roll to the rim.

Ashley was an infrequent and ineffective pick-and-roll finisher. He had just 18 opportunities as a freshman, with a subpar efficiency of 0.556 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

• Ashley made 3-point shooting the big focus of his offseason. He had the right form, but not the experience. "I had never been an outside shooter, so I wasn't comfortable with it as a freshman," he said. He got comfortable -- and he got a point guard in McConnell who could sink defenses and create open looks.

• Early in 2013-14, opposing defenses game-planned for the old version of Ashley, ignoring him as a pick-and-pop threat. In the NIT Season Tip-Off final in New York, Duke directed all its pick-and-roll attention to McConnell, leaving Ashley alone at the top of the key, where he didn't hesitate in hitting a three. The clips in this film edit show that play, plus how Ashley screened 2-3 zones later in the season, and was also effective as a slasher and cutter to the rim:

Arizona made the McConnell-Ashley and Johnson-Ashley pick-and-pop a staple of its offense, and Ashley's improvement was immense. He averaged 1.294 PPP in those situations, an amazing 0.738 PPP gain from his freshman year. This, combined with his surge in isolation efficiency -- from 0.526 PPP as a freshman to 1.087 PPP as a sophomore -- made him one of the Wildcats' best offensive options.

• Arizona's offense will be limited in his absence. McConnell was already an inefficient and infrequent pick-and-roll scorer; he averages 0.691 PPP in those situations, while looking to pass 75.5 percent of the time. Gordon can't assume Ashley's role because defenses don't respect Gordon as a shooter; he averages just 0.591 PPP on his jumpers. Center Kaleb Tarczewski is a respectable pick-and-roll scorer, but he's one-dimensional in that regard: he always heads for the rim. In their new likely starting lineup of McConnell, Johnson, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Tarczewski, McConnell will only have one shooter (Johnson) to pass to while driving off of screens.

• 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 currently ranks No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency on kenpom.com and has the personnel to remain the top five. Its offense, which ranks 35th, is due for a drop -- a drop that could reclassify the 'Cats from "title co-favorites" to "offensively challenged contender." Great-D, decent-O teams can make Final Fours -- 2010 Butler and 2006 LSU had efficiency profiles similar to where Arizona might be headed -- but face longer odds of cutting down nets.

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