The Wildcats ended yet another game in the form of a chess match Thursday night, holding back Oregon 67-65. In their first game back since the injury of starting forward Brandon Ashley, Arizona basketball showed some definite signs of rust, as they played catch up for a good part of the game. While the team seems to be rebuilding their overall fluidity in the absence of Ashley, the Wildcats had quite a few ups and downs throughout the game.
The story of the game has to be the play of Freshman standout Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Filling Ashley’s shoes is no easy task, and while Jefferson does not have the same offensive or defensive skill set, he surely brought his own taste to the game.
Jefferson was a beast in the paint, scoring 14 points on 60% shooting and collecting 10 rebounds, his first ever double-double. Even though Jefferson does not diversify Arizona’s game the way that Ashley does, he plays hard-nosed basketball and gets the job done.
Being that Oregon plays small, Jefferson couldn’t have matched up more perfectly for his first game as a starter. Oregon forward Mike Moser could not contain Jefferson on the low block. Jefferson ended the game with two blocks and a steal, while earning respect from fans and teammates through hustle plays that don’t show up in the box score. Now that Jefferson will be a fixation in the Wildcats’ lineup for the rest of the season, NBA scouts will be keeping close attention as his stock looks to rise.
While Nick Johnson had another dismal game from the field (5-16) it was his performance at the free-throw line that saved the day for the Wildcats. His reputation as a clutch player proceeded itself Thursday night, as he hit five of his eight made free throws in the last 48 seconds of the game. This combined with Johnson’s strong defensive output, which included two key steals, was the difference in the game.
The Wildcats lack of depth revealed itself on Thursday. Sean Miller only turned to two players off the bench, both who played for less than 25 minutes. Nick Johnson only sat for one minute during the entire game, which could become an issue if he starts to wear down come March.
Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also played more than 34 minutes each. It is clear that Coach Miller is going to be turning to his starting five significantly more than in the past, which could have an adverse affect on the Wildcats’ token steady defensive play.
While Arizona held a high scoring team well below their season average, there were a few instances in this game where Oregon duped the Wildcats on simple pick and roll plays. Arizona’s success this season should be credited to their stellar defensive play, but their lack of depth could create fatigue issues going forward. If the Wildcats continue to play the same type of lackluster offense that they have played in the last five games, they are going to have to rely even more heavily on their defensive play.
The Big Picture
Without Brandon Ashley, Arizona’s title shot has realistically slightly diminished. If the Wildcats can start to build a chemistry on offense like they did earlier in the season, they still have a chance to become unstoppable once again.