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Brandon Ashley gets first crack at Wisconsin

Arizona+forward+Brandon+Ashley+%2821%29+shoots+over+the+reach+of+Xavier+forward+James+Farr+%282%29+during+Arizonas+68-60+win+against+Xavier+in+the+Sweet+Sixteen+of+the+NCAA+Tournament+in+the+Staples+Center+in+Los+Angeles%2C+Calif.+on+Thursday+evening.
Rebecca Noble

Arizona forward Brandon Ashley (21) shoots over the reach of Xavier forward James Farr (2) during Arizona’s 68-60 win against Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday evening.

LOS ANGELES — Contrary to popular belief, forward Brandon Ashley did make an impact on Arizona men’s basketball’s loss to Wisconsin last year in the Elite Eight.

While Ashley missed the 2014 Elite Eight because of injury, he was there to comfort former Arizona guard Nick Johnson after the 64-63 overtime defeat. Johnson missed a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer.

After the last shot, Ashley said he noticed Johnson was not going back to the bench.

“I felt, at that point, that he had the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Ashley said. “But I definitely wanted to go over there and just tell him, ‘Hey, obviously the game isn’t the last one you’ll ever play. We lost to a team; it wasn’t just you, so hold your head up. Let’s move forward.’”

Johnson, who is playing professionally now with the Houston Rockets, still has a photo of the occasion as his Twitter profile picture.

Arizona was the top seed in the West last year and played in Anaheim, Calif.

“I’m not sure a loss like that, you ever really get over,” Ashley said. “I feel like that’s something that really stays in the back of your mind for the rest of your career as motivation, that is something [that] will help you work harder, and I definitely think that’s something that’s going to stick with everybody else on that team for a very long time.”

Ashley suffered a season-ending injury on Feb. 1, 2014, at California. Before he suffered a torn ligament, the Wildcats were 21-0 and ranked No. 1.

Without Ashley, Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Kaminsky was 11-for-20 from the field, 3-for-5 from beyond the arc and had seven offensive rebounds.

“It was definitely frustrating to not be able to be out there and compete with my team last year,” Ashley said. “It was tough to see the game come to such a pivotal point at the end of the game where we were pretty much down one possession and needed a bucket, and I couldn’t be out there to help get a tip in or help in the play. But I mean, to be in this position now is a blessing. I’m definitely looking forward to the opportunity to compete against them tomorrow.”

Arizona guard Gabe York said Ashley is ready to take on the Badgers.

“Brandon is a very quiet person, but I think he’s really ready to play against Wisconsin,” York said. “Obviously seeing all of us so devastated and stuff and he wasn’t out there to help us, and I think that just brings a feeling of fire for him and I think that he’s going to be ready to roll.”

This season, the Wildcats are the No. 2 seed and Wisconsin is the No. 1 ― but the Wildcats have Ashley. The junior is second on the team in scoring (12.1 points per game) and blocks (0.7 per game). He is also 10th in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (.511).

“Not having him really hurt us this year,” Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell said. “I think he’s one of the best forwards in the country, I’ve said that a lot. Having him this year, he’ll be able to guard different guys we didn’t have in the lineup last year. That’s going to be huge for us.”

Ashley was the Pac-12 Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, averaged 16.0 points in the UA’s last five games and has scored in double-figures in 15 of Arizona’s last 20 games.

“We have Brandon that can match up with Kaminsky, but Kaminsky has to match up with our different lineups as well,” Arizona graduate manager Joseph Blair said. “This year when Brandon comes in at the five, it really changes our lineup a lot. It changes the way he’s going to have to defend our five.”

Blair, a former Arizona center who helped lead the Wildcats to the 1994 Final Four and has helped coach UA big men, said Wisconsin’s bigs are tough because they are unconventional.

“They’re very good at what they do because they’re not the traditional bigs,” Blair said. “All of them can step out and hit 3-pointers; they can handle the ball well. A lot of big guys, you’re used to them always being back to the basket. These guys are all very comfortable facing the basket, maybe actually a little less comfortable with the back to the basket, to be honest with you.”

Kaminsky is averaging 20.7 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Ashley said he is excited to get the chance to play Kaminsky.

“I feel like any competitor wants to be out there and have a chance, maybe shut someone like that down,” Ashley said. “He’s a very talented player, we’re looking for a battle and definitely looking forward to the opportunity.”

The Badgers’ frontcourt of Kaminsky, forward Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are averaging 54.3 points and 21 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament. Dekker had a career-high 23 points in the Sweet Sixteen against North Carolina.

Ashley said he likes Arizona’s versatility with center Kaleb Tarczewski and forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson also in the frontcourt.

“I feel like Kaleb, he’s a big guy that can bang on the inside,” Ashley said. “Me, I’m probably a little bit more versatile on the outside and sending Rondae, just throwing different looks at them and definitely making it more complicated if he’s not facing the same defense through the whole entire night.

Blair said the Wildcats took it slow with Ashley as he was recovering from the injury.

“He’s a hard worker and I think that the Pac-12 Tournament is very indicative of the strides that he’s made,” Blair said.

Ashley said it was tough to watch the game last year from the bench. This year he’s able to do more.

“We were literally one possession away from the Final Four, so it was definitely tough to take that loss but here, now, [I’m] looking forward to have the chance to compete and advance,” Ashley said.

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Follow James Kelley on Twitter.

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