- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Arizona could take the first loss of the season. Since no team had gone undefeated in more than three decades, it felt almost inevitable.

Falling out of the top spot in the poll wasn’t bad, either; the goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season, not the middle.

Losing Brandon Ashley, that’s going to be a little tougher for the second-ranked Wildcats to take, a development that will force them to shuffle things around and potentially put a dent in their national championship aspirations.

“It’s a huge loss for us not to have Brandon for the rest of the season,” Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski said. “But we still feel that even without him, we still have a great team.”

With Ashley, Arizona hummed along to the best start in program history, beating teams like Duke, Michigan, UCLA and San Diego State while winning its first 21 games.

The Wildcats’ fortunes took a bad turn Saturday night in Berkeley, when they lost the game 60-58 on Justin Cobbs’ last-second shot and lost Ashley to an awkward landing while going up for a rebound in the first half.

Ashley injured his right foot on the play and faces the possibility of surgery.

Arizona (21-1, 8-1 Pac-12) now faces playing the rest of the season without one of its best, most versatile players.

“No one expected us to do as well as we have this year; we kind of just let our play do the talking,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. “People can write what they want and say that we’re not a national championship team, but we’re going to work hard every day and they can’t take that away from us.”

A 6-foot-8 sophomore, Ashley was a difficult matchup for opposing teams on offense, an athletic player who could score in the post, driving to the basket and, after spending countless hours working on his shot during the summer, from the 3-point line.

Ashley is Arizona’s third-leading scorer at 11.5 points and in rebounding at 5.8 per game. He shot 47 percent from the floor, including 36 percent from the arc and often gave opposing teams fits with his ability to keep offensive rebounds alive with his long arms.

Ashley also is one of the Wildcats’ most versatile defensive players, a long, mobile defender who has the reach to block shots inside and out, the agility to keep smaller players in front of him.

“Are we going to miss Brandon Ashley? No doubt about it,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “But we still can be an excellent team.”

The loss of Ashley will force some shuffling for the Wildcats.

Defensively, Arizona should be OK without him.

Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who’s expected to slide into Ashley’s starting spot, is an active and willing defender. At 6-7, he’s just an inch shorter and may be better at defending perimeter players than Ashley, playing that end of the floor more like an upperclassman than a first-year player.

Replacing Ashley’s offense may be a little tougher.

Hollis-Jefferson isn’t quite as polished as Ashley on offense and doesn’t have the same range, hitting 1 of his 6 attempts from 3-point range this season while scoring most of his points on drives and putbacks.

With Hollis-Jefferson in the starting lineup, 3-point specialist Gabe York moves into the sixth man role and the rest of the roster moves up a spot.

Miller has kept a fairly tight rotation this season, so now players who hadn’t seen many minutes outside of mop-up duty will be counted on more.

Guard Jordin Mayes was a regular contributor the past two seasons, but has seen his minutes decrease this season. Matt Korcheck, who redshirted last season, is an active player with a solid build at 6-10, 230 pounds, though he has played in just 10 games this season.

Freshman Elliot Pitts, who’s appeared in eight games, will likely see more minutes as well. Miller said forward Zach Peters, a transfer from Kansas who’s battled concussion issues, isn’t ready for consistent minutes yet.

Playing time among the players vying for minutes will likely be based on circumstance, depending on how well they’re playing, the opponent and what the Wildcats need during specific points in games.

“If we did nothing different other than just give the players who have played, minus Brandon, more of an opportunity, that’s part of our solution,” Miller said. “With that in mind, we know foul trouble and fatigue can certainly weigh against you, but we don’t have to do this for 30 games, just nine regular-season games and then we’re in the postseason.”

Arizona’s stretch run without Ashley starts Thursday night at home against Oregon.

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