When it was announced Sunday night that sophomore Brandon Ashley, a starting forward for No. 2 Arizona, would miss the rest of the season because of a foot injury, people questioned the next step for the Wildcats.
Would freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play more minutes? Would coach Sean Miller elect to use a three-guard lineup? Could sophomore Kaleb Tarcewski shoulder more of the scoring load?
Most important, could Arizona still win a national championship?
On Thursday, the Wildcats achieved a smaller goal. They avoided their first losing streak of the season, beating Oregon, 67-65, to move to 22-1 (9-1, Pac-12).
Senior guard Nick Johnson bounced back from his four-point performance in the loss to Cal to score 18 and dish out five assists. Freshman forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, in his first start in a Pac-12 game, scored 14 points and grabbed 10 boards. Sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski added 12 points and seven rebounds.
Oregon led for much of the second half, but senior point guard T.J. McConnell hit a three with under two minutes remaining to put Arizona up 62-60. Johnson hit five free throws in the final minute to close the door.
It was encouraging to see Oregon push the best opponent in its conference – and one of the best in the country. The Ducks haven’t showed that type of resolve against a quality opponent since losing at then-No. 20, Spencer Dinwiddie-equipped Colorado on January 5. Oregon’s starting guard trio of Joseph Young, Dominic Artis and Damyeon Dotson combined for 36 points and six assists, while senior Jason Calliste had 14 points and six rebounds off the bench.
A win, on the road, against a potential No. 1 seed, would have done wonders for Oregon’s NCAA Tournament resumé. But if confidence-building losses exist, this might be one. Oregon gave the league’s top dog all it could handle. If the Ducks can keep this up, the second half of their conference season should be much more enjoyable than their first.
This game didn’t prove Arizona can be as good as it was when it had Ashley, nor did it offer definitive proof that the Wildcats are significantly worse. The Ducks haven’t had much success during conference play -- they’ve lost seven of their past nine games -- but for Arizona on Thursday night, the opponent was less important than the result.
That 'Zona didn’t demonstrate the level of performance exhibited throughout their dominant undefeated start to the season isn’t too concerning. There are plenty of games between now and the postseason for Arizona to figure out the best way to play without Ashley – to figure out which lineups work best, who needs to contribute and how, the new wrinkles Miller might use.
Whatever deficiencies Sean Miller’s team displayed – and however eager fans may be to attribute them to Ashley’s absence – it is not fair to assume Arizona cannot remedy them before March. The Wildcats’ offense stagnated at times, and having Ashley might have made things a little easier on that end of the floor, but focusing on that glosses over the offensive rebounding (10) and defense (two blocks, one steal) Hollis-Jefferson provided. The early results suggest increased playing time for the former McDonald’s All-American will help the Wildcats in ways Ashley could not.
So as tempting as it may be to draw sweeping conclusions about a team off of one game, the truth is properly assessing a team’s quality after it loses an important player requires a larger sample size. We don’t know what Arizona will look like in March when it takes on that 15- or 16-seed you’ve never heard of. We know what it looked like five days after losing one of its best players to a season-ending injury.
Adreian Payne, glad to be back in action. pic.twitter.com/uNWX7qkLJi
— Dan Kilbridge (@MSUDanK) February 7, 2014
(9) Michigan State 82, Penn State 67
Forward Adreian Payne scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting and grabbed three rebounds in his return for Michigan State after missing the last seven games with a right foot sprain. But Keith Appling missed the game with a wrist injury. Starting forward Kenny Kaminski, who received more playing time during Payne’s absence, went 5-of-6 from three-point range and scored a team-high 19 points. Nittany Lions guard Tim Frazier shot 9-of-14 for 22 points. The Spartans will play at Wisconsin on Sunday. The Badgers have lost three straight games at the Kohl Center for the first time this century, but they won at Illinois on Tuesday.
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