Saturday, 7 p.m. MST
If the college basketball season were a game of Jenga, the Arizona Wildcats' loss of Brandon Ashley was the crumbling, tumbling down end of a game. There's enough time to get one more game going, but it all starts with rebuilding the blocks.
And it seems the Wildcats might have begun to do just that with an overtime win at Utah. Make no mistake -- the Utes aren't slouches and especially not at home. Sean Miller's team is still an elite defensive squad, and the tweak of moving Gabe York into the starting lineup could be the beginning of a build-up.
Now, the Wildcats visit the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday hoping to put more building blocks on the base. A win, and Arizona returns home to face Cal and Stanford before closing on the road against the Oregon schools UA swept two weeks ago.
"With the balance in our conference and having to hold serve at home, I think winning on the road, you have to do it to win in this league," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.
For Arizona, winning could be like the delicate balance in a game of Jenga.
The Wildcats won't be scoring as many points without Ashley, and they're bound to find themselves in close games down the stretch. But playing to that defensive identity isn't the worst thing, because Arizona is mighty capable.
Arizona need look no further that Boyle's team to understand that it's not impossible to survive the loss of a key player. A month ago, UA beat CU 69-57, part of the Buffs' rough patch that included a 1-4 record starting in the game they lost leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie.
Colorado has won five of six since that 1-4 stretch as players have readjusted to their roles. Guard Askia Booker, for one, has certainly needed time to adjust. The former starting shooting guard slid over to the point guard spot, and he's arguably been playing better than his days playing alongside Dinwiddie, who suffered a torn ACL on Jan. 12.
"Askia has really welcomed and, in many ways, relished that change," Boyle said. "He's playing the way we always wanted him to play. He is a prolific scorer, he is an aggressive player offensively. What's changed is his understanding of his teammates. He's really grown and evolved."
Likewise, the Wildcats may have finally regained balance in their individual roles.
What York gives up in defense he makes up for on offense, and that's especially true with the starting unit. The Arizona Daily Star's Bruce Pascoe confirmed that York wasn't starting to penalize Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, but simply to spark his own play. Hollis-Jefferson, after all, will get his no matter what group of players he's on the court with.
Against a solid defensive team in Utah, Arizona's many woes seemed to have solved themselves, which may not be permanent, but at least gives the Wildcats confidence that any struggles are no not a direct result of losing Ashley.
The foul shots dropped, Nick Johnson started hitting shots and T.J. McConnell got out of his turnover issues. Hollis-Jefferson proved he could make big plays late in a game with a grinding pace, and York put on a brief but important offensive show. Kaleb Tarczewski put together another significant performance in the post.
If Aaron Gordon can slip himself in as a foundational puzzle piece, this Jenga game might be solid enough for a strong finish in Pac-12 play.