You might think the title of this post should be “How much is Brandon Ashley’s absence hurting Arizona” because we can watch and see that Arizona is not as good without Brandon Ashley. I mean, they are playing without Brandon Ashley, for crying out loud. Most of the minutes formerly going to the 6-8, 230 post player are now going to 6-3, 180 Gabe York. Before Ashley got hurt, the Wildcats were 21-0, since then, they’ve gone 4-2. Come on, this is already a waste of my time, Pomeroy.
The thing is, we really don’t have enough data to be too certain about the magnitude of Ashley’s injury. Which is an important consideration, because prior to the injury, Arizona was playing like the best team in the country. The Wildcats could stand to be a bit weaker and still maintain a place in the argument over who is the best team in the land.
A reasonable first guess would be that the injury has some negative impact, but beyond that, there’s a ton of room for debate. For one thing, Ashley’s injury coincided with the beginning of one of the most difficult stretches on Arizona’s schedule: at Cal, home vs. Oregon and Oregon State, at Arizona State, at Utah, and at Colorado.
We can’t know what would have happened with Ashley in the lineup, but it would have been a great accomplishment to win all six of those games. It’s easy to disregard the schedule when assessing the impact of the injury. Especially since most will underestimate how difficult it is to win those road games. It’s possible that those four road teams won’t win a single NCAA tournament game! (In my ideal world, which would properly give credit for home-court advantage, each of those games would be considered Tier I wins. Keep in mind that only Arizona just now and UCLA last season have swept the Utah/Colorado swing in the three years the new teams have been in the league.)
On February 1, Arizona was ranked second in defense and 21st in offense. Now they are first and 31st, respectively. That’s not enough variation to pin on Ashley. The simplest question to ask is: Going back to February 1, what were the chances of a healthy Arizona going 4-2 over their next six?
Here’s the breakdown:
Wins Chc% 1 <0.1 2 0.9 3 6.3 4 23.1 5 41.2 6 28.4
So going 4-2 wasn’t all that unlikely. And especially considering that both losses came down to the last possession of regulation, I don't think anyone would be pressing the panic button if this had occurred even with Ashley in the lineup. And in a post-Ashley evaluation, it's important to remember that one of those losses was the Cal game in which Ashley got injured. One might guess that adjusting to his absence on the fly would be more difficult than having time to prepare, and Arizona had to do that in a losable game, so certainly the record isn't exactly proof that the team is significantly different.
Even the best player with a lack of a viable sub is worth about five points in college basketball. Brandon Ashley does not rise to that level. I don’t know what he’s worth, but even at three points, Arizona would still be roughly the fifth-ranked team in the land, capable of fooling observers into being the best team or the 20th-best team over a short sample.
The fact is, we still don’t have enough data to feel very confident about Ashley’s impact. Case in point is that after four games, one might have felt like the Wildcats' offense was below-average in Pac-12 terms. Then they played a respectable game at Utah considering the opposition and the venue. They followed that with their best offensive game of the year at Colorado, pounding out 1.32 points per possession, the most allowed by the Buffaloes at home in over nine years.
One might make the case that Colorado looked completely uninterested in defending Arizona, and that is an example of the need for more data. When looking at one game, a whole lot of things can affect a team’s stats that it has no control over. Most obviously, the opposing team’s level of effort. Over 30 games, you’ll get a representative mix of opponents’ playing over their head and underachieving. In one, or even six games, that may not be true.
Especially in this season where there may truly be no great team (it’s not just a mindless cliché this season - the rating of the top team in my system is significantly lower than in any previous season), there’s still a lot left to learn about where Arizona fits into the national hierarchy. So far, they’ve shown to be worse offensively and about as good defensively as they were with Brandon Ashley. That level of performance still may be good enough for them to be the best team in the land. The last six games haven’t provided enough evidence to disprove that or even to accurately know Arizona's identity post-Ashley.