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Monday, February 3, 2014
Game Plan: Arizona’s phase two

By Eamonn Brennan

Game Plan is our Monday morning primer, designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.

It is a testament to how good Arizona has been for so long that today, Feb. 3, is the first in which it is appropriate to talk about what they can’t do, what they don’t have, what adjustments they need to make.

It is also, of course, a testament to Brandon Ashley.

On Saturday night, the best and most balanced team in the country lost its first game of the season. It did so at Cal in a brutal shooting performance that persisted until the final minute, when guard Nick Johnson earned a great 15-foot look at a go-ahead bucket and just plain missed. Cal’s Justin Cobbs took a much more difficult shot on the other end -- a 17-foot step-back baseline jumper over Kaleb Tarczewski -- and banged it. Cal fans stormed the court with time on the clock, Mike Montgomery screamed at them like a frustrated high school dean of discipline and then Cal fans stormed the court again, joyously and officially, when the clock said zero.

Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson and Arizona finally fell, but the Wildcats -- even with the loss of Brandon Ashley -- are still set up to be a championship contender.
All of this was very fun. It was also no big deal to Arizona. The Wildcats shot horribly and lost a conference game on the road in the final minute; these things happen. In a vacuum, Sean Miller would have left that game feeling fine. No thinking fan’s impression of Arizona would have changed.

But Arizona’s loss was much greater than any single game. It lost Ashley, its starting power forward, to a broken foot that ended his season.

Miller’s immediate pessimism after the game Saturday proved prescient. Now he and the Wildcats have to figure out exactly what to do without one of their most important players. They have to find out whether a team without Ashley can be as good as one with him.

There is some good news. If there is one position the Wildcats could afford an injury to, it is the frontcourt. Losing either point guard T.J. McConnell or All-American-level shooting guard Johnson would leave Miller with a gaping hole in his rotation. Losing Ashley still leaves the Wildcats with one of the best centers in the country (Tarczewski) and one of the most athletic, active forwards (freshman Aaron Gordon).

But that’s also kind of the downside: Being bigger and more physical and more active in the paint is exactly the thing that has separated Arizona from most of the country’s national title contenders. And not only was Ashley great around the rim and on the glass, his ability to step outside and make spot-up shots (his second most-frequent play type, according to Synergy) kept the Wildcats from becoming too crowded and bogged down. It kept a strength from morphing into a weakness.

On Saturday night, Miller said his staff needs to get back to the proverbial drawing board and "make sure we can move forward if Brandon is not with us." That if is now when. So what will that entail?

It appears Miller has two options. The first is a simple insertion of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona’s other hyper-athletic freshman, and maybe moving Gordon to the power forward spot. The problem with this is that both players do similar things, and neither spaces the floor like Ashley. (Cal all but begged Gordon to shoot Saturday night. He usually demurred.) The other option is Gabe York, the Wildcats' best 3-point shooter. York forces defenses to be honest out to the 3-point line, but he’s also 6-foot-3 and offers little in the way of penetration. The latter option might make Arizona’s offense more efficient, its personnel less redundant. But it could cost the Wildcats their identity.

The answer is not cut and dry, of course; Miller will play a combination of lineups, just as he has all season. Situation and opponent will often dictate the decision, and adjustments will be made. Still, just because Arizona lost a player at a loaded position doesn’t mean the injury won’t profoundly change its season.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

Yogi Ferrell
Yogi Ferrell scored 27 points in Indiana's win over Michigan, continuing the Hoosiers' schizophrenic season.
Indiana beats No. 10 Michigan 63-52 and steals North Carolina’s mantle as the most utterly confusing team on Planet Earth. So here’s Indiana’s past six results: Home win over Wisconsin, home loss to Northwestern, a hard-fought loss at Michigan State, home win over Illinois, road loss to Nebraska and home win over Michigan. How does one attempt to make sense of such a thing? Maybe things aren’t quite as strange as they seem at face value: For starters, Nebraska isn’t all that bad. The Hoosiers are often a mess offensively, but they’ve guarded well all season, and when they get big nights from Yogi Ferrell (and don’t turn the ball over that often) they can be effective enough on offense to beat good teams. Michigan spent the month of January in a state of offensive hotness that was bound to regress eventually. Ferrell scored 27 points. Combine all of these things, and you’re getting closer to understanding the mystery that is the Indiana Hoosiers. But still: What a list of scorelines, huh?

Malcolm Brogdon stuns Pitt on last-second 3, Cavaliers remain factor in the ACC race. On Saturday night’s "College Basketball Live," Andy Katz made special note of the Virginia Cavaliers; he reminded people that while Syracuse still looks like the favorite to win the ACC (especially after Saturday night’s thrilling win over Duke), the Cavaliers and their much easier schedule were lurking. And that was before Sunday. The Cavaliers came away with a great -- if slow-paced, defensive, and often ugly -- 48-45 win at Pittsburgh thanks to a last-second 3 from Brogdon and a brilliant defensive effort that held Lamar Patterson to just 3-of-14 from the field. There are immediate implications for Pitt, namely that the Panthers still have anything resembling a marquee win on their résumé. But just as important is what the win means for Virginia. It’s close to a guarantee of an NCAA tournament bid, for starters, but it also establishes Tony Bennett’s team as the one obvious disruptor of Syracuse’s ACC title march.

Oh, and then there’s Syracuse. If you somehow missed Saturday’s 45-minute expression of basketball beauty, ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil was there: "Syracuse beat Duke 91-89 in overtime. That’s the short story. The long version is almost too hard to explain, played as much on guts as talent, with as much intensity as heart. It went an extra five minutes. It still didn’t seem like enough. It was that good. Rasheed Sulaimon hit a buzzer-beating 3 to force overtime. Rodney Hood missed a one-handed, would-be game-winning dunk that would have been so monstrous had it gone down instead of off the back of the rim, it would rank as a top 10 for the season. C.J. Fair scored 28 on every sort of floater and muscle drive you could conjure. A record 35,446 Orange juiced fans filled the Dome, cheering so loudly that even Seattle Seahawks fans had to be impressed. That’s a season’s worth of highlights in one game. 'How many people can say they were a part of a game like this?' Krzyzewski said."

STAT OF THE WEEK: Stat of the week has spent most of its existence serving as the default Creighton-Doug McDermott dumping ground, so let’s change it up and honor another 3-point wizard. On Saturday, Oakland guard Travis Bader broke J.J. Redick’s record for most 3-pointers in the history of college basketball. Let’s go to Oakland coach Greg Kampe: "You've got a guy sitting in the room that's the greatest of all-time at something, and we're not talking about flipping a tiddlywink or something like that. This game's been played for a long, long time, and he's the best ever. And he's still got seven, eight games left."

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

(For two more in-depth previews of big games week to come, check back for Monday morning’s "Planning for Success" series.)

Wednesday

Wichita State at Indiana State, 8:05 p.m. ET, ESPN3: Wichita State’s quest for perfection rolls on. The Shockers had their hands full against Evansville Saturday; they trailed by 15 at one point in the first half, but, just as they did weeks ago at Missouri State, Gregg Marshall’s team rallied in time to put yet another win on the board. They also set up this massive contest. The Sycamores are the second-best team in the Missouri Valley Conference and difficult to beat on their own floor. If Wichita State escapes Terre Haute, Ind., with a win, the chances of it finishing the regular season unbeaten -- and making it to the NCAA tournament without a loss -- will be a statistical probability.

Thursday

Oregon at Arizona, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The good news for Arizona is that its first game in the post-Ashley era comes against a flailing Oregon team that has (A) lost five of its past seven games and (B) doesn’t really have post players.

UConn at Cincinnati, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Cincinnati’s defensive brilliance has been documented at length in this space before, but it was on full display last week at Louisville, when it held the Cardinals -- a truly efficient offensive group -- to a seven points in their first 20 possessions. Louisville’s full-court pressure made it a game late before Sean Kilpatrick took matters into his own hands, but it was that ability to put good opponents in a hole (and generally make life miserable for 40 minutes) that earned Cincy the win.

Saturday

Michigan at Iowa, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN: From the first week of January onward, no team in the country was as hot as Michigan, and it was probably only a matter of time before the Wolverines experienced a brush with the regression of the real world. That came Sunday at Indiana. Iowa, meanwhile, can no longer rely on its win at Ohio State to secure its reputation. RPI-wise? Maybe. Perception-wise, no. This is a big game for both, but far bigger for the Hawks.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Benjamin Okun
Benjamin Okun of Syracuse, N.Y., heads into MetLife Stadium before Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday afternoon. I don't know if he came straight from the Syracuse-Duke game without changing clothes, but I'm pretty sure Benjamin had the best weekend ever.