The Arizona Wildcats (21-1, 8-1) historic, undefeated start came to an end Saturday night as they fell to the California Golden Bears (15-7, 6-3) 60-58. Arizona lost F Brandon Ashley to a foot injury in the opening minutes, and postgame reports mentioned a possible broken foot and a potential loss of Ashley for the rest of the season.
On Arizona finally dropping a game-
I personally am not a believer in the “you must drop a game before March” belief, and I liked what I saw from Arizona given the circumstances. Losing your best interior scoring threat shortly after the opening tip is a setback that would shellshock most teams, but Arizona continued to fight and show resilience throughout the loss. After previous games I have raved about the competitiveness and “gamer” mentality Arizona brings to each contest, and despite the loss I was proud of the way every guy went out and battled.
On Brandon Ashley’s injury-
Obviously this injury is a substantial blow to Arizona’s long-term chances. Not to say great things cannot still be accomplished, but as you watched the Cats offense without Ashley it was clear to see that his floor spacing and general playmaking ability was sorely missed.
Without Ashley to provide spacing, Cal was able to sag considerably off Aaron Gordon and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, forcing Arizona to really work to find clean looks. I am sure Pac-12 coaches across the board will go to town on this game tape, and we should look to see Gordon being left free on the perimeter quite a bit going forward.
F Matt Korcheck and G Elliot Pitts picked up a combined four minutes in wake of the injury, and I would imagine these two will be leaned on more heavily as the season progresses. Arizona had a thin bench already, and I cannot see everybody holding up for the rest of the season at 32+ minutes per game.
Credit has to be given to Cal for really seizing this moment and performing on a big stage. Both Richard Solomon and David Kravish performed well throughout, but they did an exceptional job of starting fast and energizing a rowdy home crowd.
Justin Cobbs continued to be a thorn in the side of Arizona, and his game-winning jumper was simply a great isolation play.
On Nick Johnson-
You could say Johnson was due to struggle in a game eventually. After almost single-handedly saving Arizona from multiple losses this year, Johnson struggled to find rhythm against Cal. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that he was (insert asterisk) kept off the free throw line, but he also missed some great looks throughout the course of this game.
Overall, I still think Johnson played well given the circumstances. He was absolutely critical on the defensive boards, especially in the second half, and without him being able to close possessions on the defensive end Arizona would not have been able to climb back into this game. He looked confident and stayed aggressive throughout, but shots just simply weren’t falling for him and that is part of the game.
On Kaleb Tarczewski-
One bright spot in this game for me was the offensive productivity of Zeus. It seemed like, in the absence of Ashley, Zeus was able to showcase more of his offensive game than he has been showing so far this season. He was also perfect (12-12) from the free throw line, a huge reason Zona was even relevant.
He battled Cal big Solomon and Kravish on both ends of the floor, and although they have very productive days I see those more as an anomaly than a constant. Zeus has done an exceptional job shutting down post scorers all year, so he was bound to face some resistance eventually.
Going forward Zeus will probably be asked to shoulder a large part of the vacated scoring from Ashley. Based on what I saw this game, I am entirely confident he can handle it and produce very good numbers going forward.
On what is next for Arizona-
Saturday was a tough day to be an Arizona fan, no doubt, but the season is nowhere near from being over. Final reports on Ashley’s injury should come out within the next few days, but even if he is lost for the year Arizona has the pieces to be a factor.
Will it be tough? Yes. The next few weeks will likely be the hardest stretch of the season for the Cats are they look to establish their identity without such a key cog.