November 15, 2014

Healthy and confident, Brandon Ashley is poised to again play a key role for Arizona.

Coming off a strong opening performance, the junior forward leads the second-ranked Wildcats against visiting Cal-State Northridge on Sunday.

In his first full season as a starter in 2013-14, the 6-foot-9 Ashley averaged 11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and was perhaps Arizona's most unheralded player before breaking his foot at California on Feb. 1.

The Wildcats' 21-0 start ended that day and so did Ashley's season.

The top returning scorer from a team that fell one game shy of the Final Four, Ashley joins fellow key returners T.J. McConnell, Kaleb Tarczewski, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and highly touted freshman Stanley Johnson in their quest to help Arizona take the next step.

Ashley didn't show any signs of rust while scoring a career-high 21 points and pulling down six boards in 28 minutes of Friday's 78-55 victory over Mount St. Mary's.

"It's confirmation I'm still able to compete at this level, still feel good about myself," said Ashley, who went 9 of 10 from the field and added two steals. "Playing well like that is a confidence boost as well."

While the effort provided reinforcement for Ashley, coach Sean Miller believes it's a continuation of his progress.

"From his perspective, it might have been the best game he's played at Arizona," Miller said. "Brandon's a talented player. In my mind, he was hitting his stretch a year ago when he got injured. It's good for him to be off to a good start."

Miller and his staff will do everything to make sure that progression won't be interrupted again.

"He's full-go healthwise," Miller said. "It's important for us that he's well-rested. Keeping him healthy from start to finish is all of our responsibility. He's not at any more risk to be injured than anybody else on the team at this point."

Though Ashley enjoyed a solid season debut, the Wildcats aren't without their flaws.

They committed five of their eight turnovers in the first six minutes, went 4 for 16 from 3-point range and 12 of 25 from the free throw line. Those shooting issues could again be a concern after Arizona tied for fifth in the Pac-12 last season by hitting 36.4 percent of its 3s and 11th with a 65.9 percentage from the line.

"We have high expectations, and a lot is expected of us," Miller said. "Every team that plays us, they're playing against our number we're ranked. There has to be a tough mentality as a group to be ready.

"We're more of a work in progress than may be the perception."

The Wildcats still appear to be in good position to record a 23rd straight home victory in this first meeting with Cal-State Northridge.

With several players suspended while the university investigates whether they violated team rules and school policies, Northridge dressed 10 for Friday's 79-58 loss at No. 16 San Diego State. Stephan Hicks and Stephen Maxwell, the top two scorers from last season's 17-18 team, combined for 31 points for the Matadors.

"Not a lot of combinations out there," Northridge coach and former NBA star Reggie Theus said. "It just hurts our style a little bit, the way we want to get out and play."

This matchup is part of the mainland portion of the Maui Invitational, which will take Arizona to Hawaii beginning Nov. 24.

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