The Arizona Wildcats mostly avoided the injury bug in non-conference play, with Ryan Luther’s non-shooting hand injury being the only notable ailment, but it has been biting them hard ever since.
The losses are piling up as a result.
The first victim was starting point guard Justin Coleman, who dislocated his shoulder in practice leading up to Arizona’s Pac-12 opener. Surprisingly, the senior did not miss any games, though he was limited to four minutes against Colorado, his first time coming off the bench as a Wildcat.
Two weeks later Chase Jeter took a hard fall early in the first half against Oregon State, causing him to miss two games with back spasms before returning Thursday at ASU, albeit at “40 or 50 percent” health, according to head coach Sean Miller.
But as Jeter returned in limited fashion, Brandon Williams took his spot on the bench due to a troublesome right knee that he tweaked at UCLA last Saturday.
The timing could not have been worse for the freshman, who was coming off a Los Angeles road trip in which he was UA’s lone bright spot, playing what Miller called “the best basketball of his career.”
The Wildcats nearly stole a win in Tempe anyway, and having their best guard on the court could have been the difference in a close game that required overtime.
Miller declined to elaborate on Williams’ injury, other than saying Williams’ right knee was sore. ESPN’s Molly McGrath went a step further by calling it significant pain and swelling.
That is never a good sign for the Southern California native, who missed his entire junior season of high school after having surgery on that knee to correct osteochondritis dissecans, a joint condition in which bone underneath the cartilage of a joint dies due to lack of blood flow.
“It’s that knee,” Miller said when asked if that surgery could be related to Williams’ most recent injury. “I think time will tell.”
Williams’ knee was also an issue on Dec. 19 against Montana when he played a season-low 23 minutes off the bench.
The Wildcats had only used two different starting lineups up until that game. As of Thursday’s game at ASU, they have used eight. Even crazier is Arizona has used a different starting lineup in each of its last six games and four entirely new starting lineups in the last four.
That, of course, has been by necessity because of all the injuries and Emmanuel Akot inexplicably quitting the team after the Bay Area road trip.
All that shuffling has hurt the Wildcats tremendously. They have lost three straight and four of their last five. Their offensive efficiency in the last four games is 103.9, nearly six points below their season average, per KenPom.
Their defense has taken an even bigger hit, surrendering an offensive efficiency of 117.1, more than 20 points above their season average. Players have noted there have been lapses in communication, a problem that can emerge when roles are changing and players are coming in and out of the lineup.
Before Jeter, the quarterback of Arizona’s defense and its best interior defender, banged up his back, the Wildcats were 23rd in the country in defensive efficiency. Now they are 55th.
Miller has repeatedly said this season that the Wildcats have a razor thin margin for error because they are not as talented as usual. That doesn’t just mean playing hard and being cohesive. It also means staying healthy.
“We have to get healthy and that will be our best chance to win a game,” Miller said. “But it’s going to be hard for us to win a game with the limitations we have at the moment.”