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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Basketball Guide 2014: The Return of Brandon Ashley

Arizona+forward+Brandon+Ashley+%2821%29+cheers+during+the+second+half+of+Arizonas+86-68+win+against+CSUN+in+the+opening+round+of+the+EA+Sports+Maui+Invitational+in+McKale+Center+on+Sunday.+Ashley+finished+the+game+with+13+points+and+three+rebounds.
Rebecca Marie Sasnett

Arizona forward Brandon Ashley (21) cheers during the second half of Arizona’s 86-68 win against CSUN in the opening round of the EA Sports Maui Invitational in McKale Center on Sunday. Ashley finished the game with 13 points and three rebounds.

While Arizona men’s basketball features a top-five recruiting class and a fifth-year point guard, its not-so-secret weapon is what’s getting the hype.

Forward Brandon Ashley is a big reason the Wildcats are ranked No. 2 overall in the preseason rankings. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound player from San Francisco has returned from a season-ending foot injury he suffered in February.

Ashley is featured on one of the five regional Sports Illustrated college basketball preview covers. He said he hasn’t done anything special with the cover yet, but that he’s “looking forward to it.”

Arizona was 21-0 and ranked No. 1 for eight weeks before Ashley went down with his foot injury. Since he tore a ligament in his foot at California last February, the Wildcats went 12-5 and lost in the Elite Eight to Wisconsin as Badger big man Frank Kaminsky scored 28 points.

After surgery, it was a long road back for Ashley, and a UA press conference was not complete without an Ashley update.

“Well, it’s been such a long process,” Arizona men’s basketball head coach Sean Miller said. “This summer, he wasn’t nearly as far along as he is now, but Brandon is a very smart person. He cares a lot about his own career, and he cares a lot about our team. He’s clearly one of our team’s leaders.”

On Feb. 6, before Arizona’s first game without Ashley, he got a standing ovation, and the ZonaZoo chanted his name.

Ashley admitted he teared up when they announced his name before the UA’s exhibition game this past Sunday.

“All the love and support I’ve gotten from the fans in Tucson, and honestly Arizona fans all over the country, it’s been amazing,” Ashley said. “Definitely couldn’t ask for a better supporting group. It’s just special.”

Last season, Ashley averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, playing in 22 games, all of which were starts. He scored in double figures 16 times and led the UA in blocks eight times, scoring five times and rebounding three times.

“This is my best friend on the team,” Arizona forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said as he leaned toward Ashley. “We talk about everything, and just to see him get out there, get the feel for it and get back into it, it was really big to me. It impacted me in a big way, and I was really happy and excited for him.”

His freshman year, Ashley played in all 35 games, had 21 starts and averaged 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.

Miller said Ashley is back at 100 percent.

“There’s no doubt that if healthy — and we have no reason to believe he won’t be — that he’ll be better as a junior than he was at any time during his first two years,” Miller said.

After the injury, Ashley said it led him to decide to return to school rather than leave early for the NBA draft as Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon did.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Miller said, “because he’s very intelligent and he’s a hard worker and he’s also very talented.”

Ashley said that after sitting out and learning last year, the coaches sometimes looked to him on the bench as if he was a coach. Miller said watching the Wildcats from the bench during games helped Ashley grow, because he won’t take things for granted.

Ashley said he took his recovery day by day, an approach the Wildcats will take with high expectations.

“There are a lot of expectations for our team,” Ashley said. “However, even though we are thankful many are thinking highly of the team, we are looking to go day by day. … We definitely don’t want to get caught up with the hype.”

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Follow James Kelley on Twitter.

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