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Arizona needs others to step up as Brandon Williams rests knee

Georgia Southern v Arizona Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Wildcats have shut down Brandon Williams for two more games, and perhaps even more, so he can rest his right knee.

It’s a cautious approach considering the Wildcats had a big game last Thursday at ASU and another one this Thursday against first-place Washington, but a sensible one.

Williams’ right knee is the one he had surgically repaired in high school to correct a congenital disorder called osteochondritis dissecans. So when it flared up during the UCLA game on Jan. 26, the Wildcats decided to prioritize Williams’ long-term health above all else.

“That pain has had a hard time going away, and so now it’s his best interest just to make sure that we know everything that’s going on, that we shut him down, kind of allow that pain to diminish,” said UA coach Sean Miller.

“And the hope is every day, every week it diminishes and then at some point this season he potentially could return. But I don’t know when that date is. I got my fingers crossed for him that he’ll be okay because he’s obviously a terrific player playing his best basketball of his young career at Arizona, and somebody who’s already kind of paid the price with that knee.”

Losing Williams, even if it is only for two more games, is a crushing blow for the Wildcats. The freshman is the team’s leading assister, third-leading scorer and was improving each and every game since the start of Pac-12 play.

But Miller said it’s not just losing Williams’ production that makes his absence tough to manage, it’s how it affects the rest of the team. Guys like Justin Coleman, Alex Barcello, and Devonaire Doutrive will be asked to play more minutes and take on bigger roles in Williams’ stead.

“And when you play more minutes, you can’t foul, you have to play under fatigue, you have to play both ends, it’s easier to break down defensively, and it can wear him down,” Miller said of Coleman in particular.

“And Alex Barcello, he’s always played point guard from day one, so we’re ready in case we get a foul situation or an injury, but he’s played a lot of backup 2, and now we’re going to play him more as the backup 1. That’s a big difference for him as well, so that’s the hard part about it. But it’s up to us to adjust and the one thing about our team is everybody that’s currently practicing has a big role. We’re really counting on everybody right now.”

The Wildcats are no strangers to major injuries. Brandon Ashley broke his foot in 2013-14, Allonzo Trier broke his hand in 2015-16, Ray Smith tore his ACL in 2016-17 and Rawle Alkins broke his foot in 2017-18 to name some of school’s most recent ailments.

Yet, Arizona still won the Pac-12 in three of the four aforementioned seasons because it had enough depth and talent to survive.

“When a couple guys were called upon to do more, they did,” Miller said. “That’s a real credit to our program.”

This year’s team is proving to be the exception. The Wildcats are 1-3 (including the Oregon State game) since Chase Jeter suffered back spasms, an injury that forced Arizona to play super-small ball to compensate for its lack of frontcourt depth.

Without their prized center, the Wildcats were swept by a combined 44 points in Los Angeles. Jeter returned at ASU, but that is when Arizona lost Williams and, not coincidentally, its third straight game to fall four games behind the Washington team that will visit McKale Center on Thursday.

“This year going into the season the thing you worry the most about is any type of injury or foul trouble because we just aren’t as deep,” Miller said. “An injury to a key player can decimate a team that doesn’t have great depth, so it’s affected us for sure.

“Having said that, we’re not the only team that deals with that. It’s up to us to do the best we can. We have a lot of guys that want bigger roles, they practice hard every day. Now they have that opportunity, so with that bigger role now they have the chance to show what they can do and really help our team. But do I think that a couple things with our personnel has hurt us in the last three weeks? No question, and it’s a concern moving forward for sure.”