Versatile Ashley thriving as Arizona's unsung presence

    Brandon Ashley has done plenty of dirty work for top-ranked Arizona.    
Brandon Ashley has done plenty of dirty work for top-ranked Arizona.(USATSI)

Arizona is the number one team in college basketball.

The Wildcats have navigated through the first month of the season unscathed and displayed a vast array of options along the way that will make them a popular pick to reach the Final Four in Dallas.

T.J. McConnell is the veteran point guard Sean Miller has desperately craved since he arrived in the desert in 2009.

Nick Johnson is the type of veteran leader that makes big plays when they matter most.

And bouncy forward Aaron Gordon is everything people expected he would be as a freshman.

But for all the star power Arizona possesses, the unsung presence during this team's first 10 games has been sophomore forward Brandon Ashley.

Quietly confident and unassuming in his demeanor, the 6-8 Ashley has done whatever the Wildcats have needed whenever they've needed it.

Against UNLV last Saturday, Ashley had the game's decisive basket right at the rim in the final minute.

Wednesday night against New Mexico State, the sophomore scored 15 points on seven shots and made all three of his three-point attempts.

"One of things that’s interesting about our offense is that Brandon is, by far, the most efficient player we have," Arizona coach Sean Miller said. "His field goal percentage is right around 60 and when we get the ball to him around the basket, a lot of good things are happening. To me, our offense and his teammates flow so much better when he’s in a consistent pattern offensively. Where he’s at right now, it’s to our advantage to try to put him into scoring position even more moving forward. He’s diverse in his approach. He’s driving the ball, getting fouled, he’s knocked down a few threes.”

And that's something the Wildcats desperately needed.

When Grant Jerrett unexpectedly left Arizona after his freshman season last spring, Ashley immediately became the Wildcats' most likely candidate to emerge as a potential stretch power forward.

So far, he's responded.

In Arizona's last four games, Ashley has made seven of his last eight attempts from behind the three-point arc. Jerrett made 32 three-point shots and shot 40.5% from deep last season.

"It's definitely something I wanted to add to my game," Ashley said of the three-point shot. "Grant (Jerrett) leaving really opened up that role for me. I learned a lot from him in a lot of areas. He wasn't just a talented outside shooter but he was really an effective low-post player too. He was really skilled."

And so is Ashley.

But the biggest difference between these two players may be Ashley's versatility. Through the early stages of the season, Ashley has shown the ability to defend multiple positions while also scoring the ball in several ways on offense.

“Brandon is so long," Miller added. "Even though his height is close to 6-8, his wingspan is about 7-4. You really feel that when he’s guarding you. I’ve talked about his offense, but he’s an improved defender. He showed that against Duke, where he did an excellent job making the game hard for a player like Jabari Parker. He knows where to be and how to defend, and he’s playing two positions for us this year, not just one. Brandon is also very young. A year ago, he should have been a high school senior. This year, he should be a true freshman. I believe that his best days are ahead of him for the reasons I talked about in that he’s developing on both ends of the floor and getting physically stronger.”

With Ashley, Gordon, 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, and freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Wildcats have a frontcourt that will be able to match up with any team they play.

Tarczewski is an anchor in the pivot and while Gordon and Hollis-Jefferson each came to Tucson with a great deal of fanfare, you get the feeling that no one on Arizona's baseline cares about who gets statistical credit as long as this team keeps winning games.

“One of things our frontcourt doesn’t get enough credit for is that this specific group of guys is really unselfish and can really pass the ball," Miller said. "Sometimes, when you think of shooting, people think of the three-point shot. In reality, being able to make 15-footers and being able to score around the basket is more valuable. The question isn’t as much shooting as it is scoring. We have a frontcourt that has proven it can score.”

Being around a plethora of talented players is nothing new for Ashley.

"Going to Findlay Prep when I was in high school kind of prepared me for the role I have now because I was around so many guys who could score," Ashley said. "I accepted the fact that I wasn't going to be the man. I played with Winston Shepard (San Diego State), Anthony Bennett (UNLV) , Dominic Artis (Oregon), and Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington). When you're around that level of talent, you know have to pick your spots and just accept your role. That's what I'm trying to do now."

It looks like it's working out.

The Wildcats are only about a quarter of the way through the marathon that is a full season of college basketball, but they look like they have the makings of a team that could be playing its best basketball in March and early April.

A big reason why is Ashley.

In this day and age, many college athletes wouldn't sacrifice shots, attention, or prestige.

Ashley has.

For all the teams that have been discussed among the nation's elite, Ashley may be the one player on all those rosters that's doing the most but getting mentioned the least.

"My role is what I expected it to be," Ashley said. "I never expected to be the main guy but that's OK with me. We have a unique team with three guys starting 6-8 or taller. We have a lot of options."

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