Arizona begins life after Ashley

After Arizona’s narrow win over Oregon on Thursday night, Sean Miller stepped to his customary place in front of the postgame television cameras to answer questions posed by ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman. The second question was the universal one, the same thing everyone has been asking since Arizona lost its first game of the season and its starting power forward Brandon Ashley on the same night Saturday: How would the Wildcats -- and new starter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, more specifically -- respond? Was Miller ever worried?

“Not at all,” he said. “He’s a stud.”

As postgame analyses go, that was an easy one. But no less accurate for it.

Indeed, Hollis-Jefferson’s impressive starting debut in the Wildcats’ 67-65 win over the Ducks hardly qualifies as a surprise. The less-touted of Arizona’s two insanely athletic freshmen forwards (Aaron Gordon being the other, perhaps you’ve heard of him), Hollis-Jefferson had nonetheless already put together an excellent year as Miller’s sixth man before he was elevated to the focal point in Ashley’s wake. But he was great Thursday -- all attacking, angular energy -- and his four buckets late in the second half were crucial to Arizona’s mini-comeback effort.

Hollis-Jefferson finished with 14 points (on 6-of-10 shooting), 10 rebounds (four of them offensive), three assists, two blocks and a steal. And Arizona escaped its own gym with a win because of it.

So, hey, there’s one item crossed off the list. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is indeed good at basketball. Check and check.

The rest of the picture is slightly less clear.

The Wildcats’ conundrum in replacing Ashley was never a simple matter of plug-and-play. Miller’s team, for all its immense strengths, hasn’t gone much deeper than seventh man Gabe York all season. So the task for Miller was to get the stuff out of Hollis-Jefferson (the rim-runs, the transition baskets, the motor) that makes him special over a longer stretch, while maintaining that significant size advantage that Arizona so ruthlessly wields.

The Wildcats’ unique size is written all over their per-possession numbers: They’ve shot it really well inside the arc, and OK outside it. They don't shoot 3s often, though -- just 25.9 percent of their field goal attempts are 3s, which ranks 323rd in the country -- and they play at a slow-ish pace, which has helped accentuate the strengths of Ashley, Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski around the rim. It also helped minimize that lack of depth in the backcourt. The Wildcats rarely had their shots blocked. And when they missed, they got their own rebound 39 percent of the time.

Ashley was key in all of this, and he did something no other Arizona big man could: He made jumpers, and thus spaced the floor, without losing any of the interior productivity in the exchange.

On Thursday night, Miller unveiled a decidedly smaller team. York, a good standstill shooter who has attempted 81 3s and just 41 2-pointers all season, took on the sixth-man responsibilities and played 24 minutes. Guard Elliott Pitts, who had played in just nine games all season (and averaged about a point in less than five minutes) was called up for 12 minutes of spot duty. He attempted three 3s, made one and grabbed three rebounds. He acquitted himself well. But Pitts’ presence is the long tail of Ashley’s injury, and the clearest sign that Arizona will end up smaller in the future out of sheer necessity.

And then there is Gordon. If you squint, Gordon’s night -- five shots, six points, eight rebounds -- was fine. If you even casually glance, you should notice the 2-for-11 performance from the free throw line. This is another weakness Ashley’s loss exacerbates: Gordon is a 42 percent shooter from the free throw line, and he has the second-highest free throw rate on the team.

Translation: He’s leaving a ton of points on the board. Ashley was a 76 percent free throw shooter. Hollis-Jefferson shoots 62.8 percent. The Wildcats’ ability to absorb fouls from desperate, overmatched defenses took a major hit with Ashley’s loss, one without a clear fix at the ready.

In the end, Thursday night’s 67-65 win doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Arizona Version 2.0 will really look like. The Ducks don’t have much of an interior themselves -- their closest thing to a reliable “center” is probably 6-foot-8 tweener wingman Mike Moser -- and, oh yeah, they arrived in Tucson on Thursday losers of six of their past eight. A litmus test this was not. Miller will need more time to tinker, to tweak, to find new ways of maximizing the still-considerable talent on the floor. All precincts have not reported.

“Clearly, [Hollis-Jefferson’s] role changes a little bit,” Miller said. “But he’ll grow, he’ll get better. And we’ll just stay with it.”

At the very least, though, Thursday served notice that Hollis-Jefferson will take on his new role with gusto. Where Arizona goes from here is still an open question.